Bong Joon-ho’s (Snowpiercer) Netflix film Okja toes the line between biting satire, emotional drama, and a campy mess.
In the film, the Mirando Corporation devises a long-term marketing stunt where the company claims to naturally create “super pigs”, Hippo-like creatures that are by all accounts both incredibly adorable and a huge renewable source of food with less of an environmental footprint. In a big grandiose press conference, Mirando pledges to give these pigs to farmers around the world to raise in a “best of the super pig” competition. It’s here that we are introduced to CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) in a larger than life way, sporting bright white hair and a very… let’s say recognisable speaking tone, and it unfortunately feels more like Mugatu’s introduction of Derelicte than anything.
Cut to a decade later, we meet Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), an orphaned Korean girl living with her grandfather and Okja, one of these super pigs. After Mirando Corp. captures Okja to parade around in New York and, ultimately, turn to food, Mija embarks on a mission to save her animal friend from its impending doom.
Hyun is by far the standout of this uneven film. The young South Korean actress not only makes you believe in the bond between a girl and her giant CGI’d best friend, but she nails her performance with the only character that is allowed to keep a consistent tone. In her rescue attempt, Mija meets the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), led by Jay (Paul Dano) and backed by a cast of characters who feel like they exist so Bong can satirise activism itself, despite being on the right side of the story. The ALF is full of snakes out for their own agenda and hokey stereotypes – like Blond (Daniel Henshall), who refuses to eat anything purely out of protest (at one point he drops in and out of consciousness) – constantly apologising and stressing that they are “non-violent” in their intentions.
But to contrast these bumbling characters, Bong fails to truly maximise the villainous potential of Swinton’s Lucy. Hell, Mija’s grandfather felt more villainous to this writer than Lucy, as her motives still seem more related to helping people, despite her nefarious means. Lucy needed much more – like the factory scene given to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Johnny Wilcox, for example – in order to be given a clear-cut antagonist role, which is what was needed. Instead, Lucy waltzes through the film as someone who is simply misguided more than anything, until someone else takes the spotlight for the last 10 minutes, which just feels forced.
However, this film is not a complete disaster. The first act with Mija and Okja is a beautiful tale of friendship with very little dialogue, where a simple visual set-piece is enough to show the viewer how far Mija is willing to go for Okja – and vice versa. While Bong does get a bit heavy-handed with his message, his skills as director are shown off when he’s able to capture the magic between a real person and a being brought to life for the film; moments that showcase glimpses of why he has been called Asia’s Spielberg. Yes, at times the CGI might be bit iffy, and there are a number of head-scratching moments (Mija can understand a conversation with Jay using intermittent translation, which really doesn’t make much sense), but the film still succeeds in leaving the viewer with thoughtful questions.
I am not purely basing this on food choices, as Bong’s subjects cover a wide spectrum, such as the wealth of information available at our fingertips on how products such as clothes or phones are made. How much are we willing to accept when it comes to highly dubious manners of production before we just say no?
The film has the basics of a family film – a teenage protagonist protecting one of the cutest creatures put to screen – and yet the blood, guts and profanity laid throughout wildly shift the tone. Couple that with Swinton and Gyllenhaal’s cartoonish portrayals of their characters, and you have a very uneven film that flickers between E.T. and a PETA Facebook video. Simply put, Okja comes across as a film uncertain of what it wants to be.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10