Bong Joon-ho sacrifices depth of story for a truly lovely pairing in his 2017 action-adventure.
“I hold all creatures dear to my heart but you are crying out to be an exception.”
In the world of filmmaking, Bong Joon-ho has never really been one to stick to any single genre. Like his contemporary Kim Jee-woon, Bong has experimented with different styles over time, and now, over half a dozen films into his career, has developed a nice niche of dark, satirical stories sprinkled with subtle humour and bizarre moments. But unlike a lot of his peers, he’s managed to make a pretty solid name for himself in the West, first adapting the French graphic novel Snowpiercer, and now with this, the animal protection-themed Okja.
Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) lives with her farmer grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) in the mountains of South Korea. As one of 26 farms chosen by the Mirando Corporation they are part of a “competition” created by CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) to raise genetically modified super-pigs over the course of ten years. Over this time, however, Mija has grown quite attached to theirs, which she has named Okja. Things take a bad turn when TV doctor Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal at his craziest), working for Mirando, comes to take Okja away as part of the televised event. Mija isn’t having any of it, and chases them to Seoul. There, she runs into ALF – an animal rights group led by the overly nice Jay (Paul Dano), who are dead-set on proving to the world that Mirando is nothing but an evil, greedy company with no love for the people, or the animals they farm.
One of the more interesting aspects of this film is how much like a children’s film it sounds like, at first glance. A young girl goes to great lengths to rescue her animal companion from the clutches of an evil organisation? That’s some prime Studio Ghibli stuff there. However, Bong and co-writer Jon Ronson have given this story a solid adult edge, filling the script with drama, bad language, violence and all manner of nasty moments. It makes for a tonally jarring film, but one that works given the slightly heightened reality everything seems to be taking place in.
Okja’s biggest strength is the bond between the titular Super Pig and Mija. Ahn Seo-hyun is pitch-perfect in the leading role and considering she’s acting alongside a CG pig (which, throughout most of the movie, was actually a really convincing effect) is incredibly impressive. Ahn has a great future ahead of her, if she can throw out performances like she did here in other films. Praise also to the team who brought the titular animal to life. Everything from its expressive face to its believable compositing will really make the audience feel for this thing. There’s a real strong bond between Okja and her that is the real guiding force of the whole movie, as well as the emotional core. You really want her to succeed in saving her pet, everything else be damned.
In fact, when neither Okja nor Mija are on screen, the movie begins to fall flat. Not that it isn’t a little bit entertaining at all times – the absolutely insane performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton and the rest of the cast ensure this – but the story is less interesting when it focuses on the Mirando group, or the members of ALF. The characters are too one-note to hold scenes by themselves. ALF are just so good, and big bad business is so bad that you kind of start to wish for a bit of moral grey area to have some fun in. A part of me hoped that Mirando actually treated its cattle excellently, or that the ALF guys were just as bad, or something.
But it doesn’t matter in the end because it’s not about the ALF or Mirando. This is a movie that puts all of its efforts towards Mija and Okja and, frankly, that’s where it should be. Mija doesn’t care about the politics between the organisations and while she’s very obviously disturbed at what Mirando does, she knows there isn’t anything she can do except live her life the way she wants to. And after everything that goes down, that’s what the audience probably wants too.
Verdict: It might lack the moral ambiguity of Snowpiercer, but Bong Joon-ho’s latest film more than makes up for it with manic performances and a lot of heart.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Okja Cuteness: 6/10
Paul Dano: Just never ages, does he?
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho, Jon Ronson
Ahn Seo-hyun – Mija
Tilda Swinton – Lucy Mirando
Paul Dano – Jay
Jake Gyllenhaal – Johnny Wilcox
Giancarlo Esposito – Frank Dawson
Byun Hee-bong – Heebong
Steven Yeun – K
Lily Collins – Red
Yoon Je-moon – Mundo
Shirley Henderson – Jennifer
Daniel Henshall – Blond
Devon Bostick – Silver
Choi Woo-shik – Kim Woo-shik