Set sometime in the near future where the food resources of humans are starting to dwindle, the Mirando Corporation sees a chance to make a hell a lot of money by selling processed meat from a genetically engineered super-pig. Seeing as how the majority of the population is strongly against artificially engineered food, Lucy Mirando, the CEO of the multi-national company, comes up with a ten year plan to essentially lie to the public and trick them into thinking that these super-pigs have been looked after and made in an organic fashion. She decides to send out the twenty six cutest piglets, one to each country where Mirando has a business presence, and given to farmers where they are to raise them for the next ten years. When matured to the right age, a contest for the cutest super-pig will be held, where Lucy Mirando hopes the public will fall in love with its looks without really looking into how they were made. Ten years passes via a fade to black, where we are then transported to the mountains of South Korea where Mija, a young teenage girl, is playing with her family pet, Okja, the aforementioned super-pig. Almost immediately, officials from the Mirando corporation appear in an attempt to bring the animal back to the USA, but Mija will do anything to get her best friend back, even if it means going to the US herself.
“Okja” is my most anticipated film of 2017 and it is because of one man, the director Bong Joon-Ho. Bong is a genius director and has yet to make a bad film and when this film was officially announced it was described as a “monster” movie. The director quickly explained that while yes, there was a monster in the film, people should not be expecting another film like “The Host”, his brilliant monster horror film from 2006. Even after this statement, my expectations went into overdrive but I'm now actually wondering if I originally misunderstood the quote or if it was a case of poor translation because Okja is not a monster per se, but more a “creature”, and horror is the farthest thing from this film. Bong Joon-Ho has attempted to tell a Spielbergian tale about a girl and her pet but layering it within a story criticising the mass marketing of processed meats and food, as well as the way big businesses will exploit anything, particularly its customers in order to make a buck. So is the film successful in its attempts; lets look and see.
I am going to be upfront about this and state that at the end of the day, I was quite disappointed in “Okja”. There were some great elements to the film but there were, equally, a lot of awkward parts too and as a whole I just did not think that it gelled or worked properly. My favourite part of the film was the two characters of Mija and Okja. Even though one is man and the other is beast, you can feel the love between the two of them and it is so obvious how much they enjoy the time they spend with each other. It just feels so real, and that is where the heart of this film comes from. This is quite an achievement too, with Okja the super-pig being a CGI character. My feelings about CGI are well known now, but credit where credit is due because Okja has been done extraordinarily well. He always feels like a real animal, existing within and organic to the environment shown and the animators have done an amazing job of giving this animal such character. You can tell that he is a fun, cheeky and loving animal, that is also as lazy as it gets, but always loves his owner Mija. Whenever the film is focusing on these two characters, it is at its strongest, but alas there are a lot of characters in this film.
Mija and Okja end up coming into contact with a group of anarchists (terrorists?) who are intent on disrupting the Mirando corporation in any way possible, mainly because of their treatment and misuse of the animals they are breeding for product. This is an aspect of the film that I do not mind, and brings with it some of the heavier ideas of the film, but I am just not sure if these characters are given the necessary screen time to get the most out of these ideas and questions. Paul Dano plays the leader of this group and I thought he was really good, giving the character a real genuine sense of care for Mija and particularly Okja. He gives the man a sensitivity where you sense that he would rather do anything else but resort to violence, but seems content in the fact that it is the only way to get the corporations to listen. As I said, he is great, but the rest of his group barely get any screen time at all and are incredibly wasted, including Lily Collins who plays Red.
My biggest issue with “Okja” though is that I find that some of the characterisations are at odds with the tone of the film itself which causes a jarring affect at best, and at worse, derails the film entirely. The biggest offender here is Jake Gyllenhaal who gives a howler of a performance; it is terrible beyond belief and is one for the ages. He plays Johnny Wilcox, a celebrity known for his love of animals, and the Mirando corporation has hired him as the face of this enterprise. If a man known for his love of animals stamps his approval behind the super-pigs, surely so will the rest of the population. Except behind the cameras Johnny hates himself for selling out for the money because he knows what these animals are going through. Gyllenhaal plays the role in the most bizarre fashion in an attempt for laughs and falls flat on his face doing it. He is embarrassing every time he is on screen, but I am sure he hasn't been helped by his director here because even his costumes are ridiculous and turn you off his character from the get-go. The other person I have issues with is Tilda Swinton who plays the dual role of twins, Lucy and Nancy Mirando. The sisters couldn't be more different with Lucy being obsessed with image and perception, whilst Nancy believes anything is fair in business, anything to make a dollar and who cares what it looks like. Now I do not have an issue with Swinton's performance per se, it is just that she feels like she has come out of a completely different film. There is a flight of fancy in her portrayals that make it seem like she doesn't exist in the real world, almost like she is a caricature rather than a real character. This wouldn't have been a problem if all the characters of the film were essentially archetypes but they are not, both Mija and Okja and the gang all have an air of reality to them, whereas the Mirando's and Johnny Wilcox do not. Maybe Bong is trying to make the point that these type of people exist in their own world, and thus expose them as being ridiculous, and if that is the case, that's fine but I'm not sure he makes the point successfully. Also I just want to state that I think Tilda Swinton needs to be careful that she doesn't head down the same path as Johnny Depp, in relying on the weird looks and silly characters, as it seems to be something she has continued to do of late.
While I had quite a few issues with the film, not least of all that it all felt rather small and sleight, let me state that from a technical point of view, it is quite the success. It has been beautifully put together as you would expect from a film directed by Bong Joon-Ho. He was able to recruit master cinematographer Darius Khondji for the film and the whole thing looks gorgeous from start to finish. When I normally think of Khondji's work, I think about how great he is at using the dark and locations where there is a lack of light, but here he fills the world of “Okja” with a brightness and colour, particularly the early scenes set in the mountains. He makes the world look lush and inviting and gives it a sense of depth that makes you understand how such a giant animal could feel at home and safe in this place. Production design elements become more important in the scenes set in the US, and are well handled by Lee Ha-Jun and Kevin Thompson. The slaughterhouse set in particular gives are great feeling of doom and despair and recalls horrific images often sighted in regards to the Holocaust. I should also make mention that as usual, Bong Joon-Ho himself does an excellent job in his direction (at least with the technical elements, as I am still not sure about his decisions with some of the performances) and once again, he proves that his is very adept at making action scenes that are both thrilling and emotional, not to mention at times, very funny. The one behind the scene element that I really did not enjoy though was the films score. I do not know much about music to talk about it in any depth, but I just felt that the whole thing worked against the images as opposed to complimenting them. It was far too playful and silly when the tone of the film was not.
Overall, when a film is your most anticipated of any year, there is always the chance that it can become a disappointment due to the expectations that you put on it. Sadly this seems to be the case here with Bong Joon-Ho's latest film “Okja”. Unfortunately I felt that too many elements of the film worked against what the film was about, which created a jarring feeling to the whole thing. It also felt rather small and sleight and maybe this had to do with the fact that “Okja” was a film made for and premiering on “Netflix” instead of on the big screen. While I will not say that “Okja” is a bad film, because too many elements of it are so good, but I will say that it is a disappointing film and for me, as a whole, just didn't work well enough. Sadly it is also my least favourite film from director Bong Joon-Ho yet, but I still look forward to what ever he does next.