Okja (South Korea, 2017)

June 27, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Okja Poster

In recent years, some of the most outlandish and edgy movies have emerged from South Korea, where directors like Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook, and Bong Joon-ho have challenged norms and defied conventions. The results, although not always successful, have never been less than interesting. Bong’s latest, Okja, continues the trend. Afforded a wider distribution platform by a Netflix release, this movie takes all sorts of chances and, for the most part, scores big. And, despite being broadly classified as a “monster movie” and featuring sequences that are as wildly bizarre as any Monty Python skit, Okja has serious messages about consumerism, ecology, and food production.

Okja is never quite what you expect it to be; it changes mood so often that you need a scorecard to keep track.  What’s amazing, however, is that all these shifts in tone don’t feel awkward or cause whiplash. Bong, whose previous endeavors have included the straightforward monster flick The Host and the high energy sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer, is a master of crisscrossing genres and blending disparate elements. The resulting cinematic casserole works as a fantasy, an adventure, a dark comedy, a story of love between a girl and her pet, and a vicious satire of the bleak aspects of human nature. That’s admittedly a lot to cram into two hours but Okja’s running length is perfect – not too short, not too long. (Note: there is a two-minute post-credits sequence for anyone normally inclined to quit early.)

The film features a mostly English-speaking cast, with familiar names like Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, Giancarlo Esposito, Lily Collins, and Paul Dano in prominent supporting roles. The stars, however, are 13-year old Korean child actress Ahn Seo-hyun and the special effects-crafted Okja, a genetically enhanced pig created by combination CGI & practical effects. Roughly the size of an elephant and looking more like a hippo than a sow, Okja is an amazing example of how to use technology to good effect. Never do we doubt that Okja is real and, in part because of Ahn’s convincing performance, we become emotionally connected to the creature.

Bong isn’t going to win many fans in the meat packing industry. This movie is resolutely anti-slaughterhouse; its unflinching depiction of what transpires on a fictionalized assembly line is the primary reason why, if put before the MPAA, Okja would get an R. The film’s strongest indictment isn’t of the industry producing the food and the inhumane conditions in which many animals are kept but of the consumers whose demand for inexpensive, high quality meat creates the economic climate in which animal comfort is a lesser consideration.

Okja’s prologue introduces us to Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), an orphaned girl who lives in the mountains with her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong). Her close companion and only friend is Okja, the giant pig-like mammal who has been with her for the past ten years. Okja is the genetically-manipulated property of the Mirando Corporation, which has “loaned” Okja and others like her to farmers across the world as part of a marketing campaign. Now, with the decade-long window for the promotion closing, Mirando wants its pigs back. Mija objects and, in the movie’s most entertaining sequence, orchestrates a rescue of Okja with the help of a group of pro-animal rights’ “terrorists” (think a kinder, gentler PETA), led by Jay (Paul Dano). When images of the rescue appear on YouTube and paint Mirando in a bad light, the company’s CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), and her chief advisor, Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito), plan a way to use Mija to sway public opinion back to their side.

If I was to nitpick, the only flaw I can find with Okja is that several of the subplots are left either unresolved or are concluded in an unsatisfactory manner. When it comes to the central storyline, however, we’re given full closure. The post-credits sequence knots one loose end (considering that most viewers will be watching this on Netflix, there’s little reason not to skip ahead to see it).

There’s a lot of the 1976 King Kong in Okja’s DNA. Considering how reviled the Dino De Laurentiis remake is in some circles, this may be surprising, but Lorenzo Semple’s screenplay is savvier than many give it credit for. Not only does the Lange/Bridges film do a better job of humanizing Kong than the 1933 version but it explores (however briefly) subject matter like the ecological rape sometimes associated with corporate greed. These elements are present in Okja, although they are delivered with greater power and served by vastly superior visual effects.

The weirdness that often crops up in Bong’s films hasn’t been neutered. Those unfamiliar with this new wave of Korean films may be surprised by the way Okja moves from tragedy to comedy and back again. The viewer simply has to buckle in and enjoy the ebb and flow. This is one of the year’s most unconventional productions but it’s also among the best.

Okja (South Korea, 2017)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2017-06-28
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Violence, Disturbing Images)
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1