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OKJA (2017) review

June 26, 2017

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written by: Bong Joon-ho and Jon Ronson
produced by: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Lewis Taewan Kim, Dooho Choi, Seo Woo-sik, Bong Joon-ho & Ted Sarandos
directed by: Bong Joon-ho
rated: unrated
runtime: 118 min.
U.S. release date: June 28, 2017 (Netlfix)

 

There was booing and controversy coming out of the recent Cannes when Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” was screened as the closing feature and while that’s typical of the fickle crowd at the long-running, renowned film festival on the French Riveria, the reason for it all happened to revolve around Netflix.  The Korean auteur’s latest film, his first since 2013’s “Snowpiercer”, is being released by the streaming giant, which is supposedly considered a threat to cine-snobs who believe it furthers the doomed future of the theatrical experience. Sure, it’d be great to see “Okja” on the big-screen, but considering how it would’ve likely received a one (maybe two) week run at an art house theater in a major U.S. city, I consider it a good thing that more viewers will have a better chance to see another unique, bizarre and original Bong Joon-ho film.

The film opens in 2007 with a mesmerizing opening credits sequence that you’ll want to immediately rewind that follows the obnoxious Lucy Miranda (Tilda Swinton, fabulously weird), the exuberant and media-fueled CEO of the multinational Mirando Corporation, a company founded by her late businessman father and once run by her twin sister, Nancy (also played by Swinton), as she makes a huge presentation before the press at the company’s New York warehouse. The camera swirls, following Lucy as she announces the development of an “all-natural” super-pig, which she assures will become the answer to world hunger in the near future, all while her associate, Frank Dawson (a mysterious and composed Giancarlo Esposito), oversees her rehearsed tele-prompted script, ensuring she stays on point.

 

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Two big reveals are made during Lucy’s presentation that will hopefully renew interest in Mirando and encourage company investors. The first announcement is that celebrity zoologist, Dr. Johnnie Wilcox (a zany Jake Gyllenhaal employing a high-pitch squeal), will now be the face of the company and the second is that twenty-six farmers around the world will be chosen to raise one precious piglet. In ten years time, one of them will be awarded as the biggest and the best of the bunch – call it a swine pageant – and flown back to New York for a celebratory reception. It’s all an ambitious event for a company that’s going overboard to promote themselves as conscientious, progressive and mindful of what’s best for the world.

Fast-forward ten years and we find eleven-year-old Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) frolicking in the South Korean countryside with her companion, Okja, a lumbering and joyful pet the size of an SUV that looks like a cross-between a hippopotamus a manatee and Barkley from Sesame Street (or think Lockjaw, for those Marvel Comics geeks). Having raised Okja with her grandfather, Heebong (Byun Hee-bong), since she was a piglet, Mija and the protective and affectionate Okja have become inseparable.

Their idyllic kinship is interrupted when they are visited by the manic Dr. Wilcox and a television crew, who have arrived at their mountainside home to present Okja with the award that was promised ten years ago and reclaim the prized super pig back to New York, to be “examined and studied” (translation: dissected and consummed). Mia was never aware of the agreement her grandfather made with Mirando and is determined to rescue Okja from the immoral corporation and bring her back home.

 

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Here’s where “Okja” takes off into a rollicking action flick at a pinball pace, which may be jarring for some who aren’t used to Bong and his tendency to upend genre expectations while mashing them up. Without much of a plan except to reunite with Okja, we follow Mija as she travels from Seoul to New York City. Mia finds some unexpected assistance in her plight from the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), a radical animal-rights activist group consisting of Silver (Devin Bostwick “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”),  Blond (Daniel Henshall “The Babadook”), Red (Lily Collins), K (Steven Yeun) and led by Jay (Paul Dano), all of whom attempt a pig-napping, albeit with no success. Mija gets caught up between the radical misfits of the ALF, the Mirando employees and the militarized authorities in their employment, all to protect Okja and take her home.

This is around the time where Bong incorporates his signature tonal shifts, which he executes so well in movies like “The Host” and, of course, “Snowpiercer”. He may not be as successful here as he is in those previous films (although I can’t pinpoint why), but it’s certainly a film I want to revisit again. Such changes in tone are usually frowned upon, but he’s become quite successful with his stylistic and idiosyncratic shifts, deliberately thrusting his characters in different situations and environments. The distinct balancing acts of humor and action, thriller and horror, make his features some of the most fascinating films being made today.

As his characters converge in the Big Apple, we go from an over-the-top fanfare welcome for the titular creature to a gruesome slaughterhouse the public is unaware of, where Okja winds up alongside seemingly hundreds of others like him. The film goes from a sweet “girl and her pig” story akin to Charlotte’s Web, then a touch of “King Kong” and well into “Fast Food Nation” territory, becoming something potentially quite gruesome  – I say potentially since that is the feeling “Okja” exudes in its second and third act – hinting at mankind’s propensity for horrors for the sake of capitalism and consumerism, and as it veers to its conclusion, there’s a sense that something gruesome is about to be revealed.

 

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“Okja” will never bore you and will remain enthralling throughout it’s entire runtime, partly because of how odd it is. That’s a good thing. You can also call it delightful, creative and heartwarming. I could’ve watched an entire full-length feature of just Mija and Okja in their enjoyable adventures which resemble a live-action Miyazaki film. The chase sequence in Seoul’s underground, where the ALF guide Mija and the clumsy Okja as they barrel through an unsuspecting public, knocking over people and places, is reminiscent of “The Host” and worthy of repeat viewings. That sequence also includes by my record the third use of John Denver music in a movie this year, as “Annie’s Song” plays during a slo-mo standoff between an umbrella wielding ALF defending Okja from authorities with tranquilizers.

There are other scenes worthy of a revisit and while the overall story from Bong Joon-ho and Jon Ronson is enthralling, I’ll mainly be returning for the characters. Swinton and Gyllenhaal continue to make great choices, tackling different roles like a director jumps genres and the characters they play here are borderline cartoonish, yet so fun to watch. They just go for it. Ahn Seo-hyun captivates, holding her own next to the impressive CGI that make up the lumbering, cuddly title character, who propels powerful feces at will.  Overall, it’s a great cast and after “Snowpiercer”, it’s encouraging to see more English and Korean actors join Bong in his surreal cinematic endeavors.

With a theatrical run, “Okja” could’ve possibly become a sleeper hit like “Snowpiercer”, but the movie theater climate is precarious. Who knows how long something hard to market and promote like “Okja” (it defies genre labels) would last in theaters nowadays. That’s why I’m glad Netflix financed the film, which will find it reaching the broadest possible audience. It’s a smart move.

“Okja” fires in a lot of directions and it may be kind of all over the place, but it gets to a strong payoff in a wonderful way. There’s a happy ending for some, but not for everyone since humans can’t help but continue to screw everything up, which is a reoccurring theme in Bong’s films. If it has to be described as a monster movie, it’s the kind that holds a mirror up to its viewers.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

 

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