OkjaReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/29/17 01:09:07
“Okja” is a film that is so strange in so many different ways that to call it bewildering would be seriously underselling the oddness on display. Under normal circumstances, I am always down with a movie that is willing to let its freak flag fly but this one is beyond the pale to such a degree that I am still not entirely sure what I think of it. On the one hand, it is a film that is clearly trying to hit the same sweet spot that “E.T.” did 35 years ago and there are a number of moments here that are indeed as magical, both technologically and emotionally, as anything that Spielberg whipped up back in the day. On the other hand, the film as a whole is bogged down by enough profanity and violence to make it largely unsuitable for the very same family audiences that it is aiming for, it goes on for far too long thanks to a bunch of scenes that go on forever without doing much to advance the narrative and a couple of performances by well-known and regarded actors that are so off-puttingly weird that you’ll hope that someone comes out with a behind-the-scenes documentary that explains what they could have possibly been thinking of when they stepped in front of the camera and let loose with such head-scratching turns.In the hopes of restoring the good name of the family agrochemical conglomerate in the wake of the depravations committed by her father and her twin sister, Nancy, during their reigns as head of the company, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) decides to move the firm into genetic modified food production as a way of heading into the future. As a way of making a wary public more welcoming of GMO products, she hits upon an idea—having successfully enhanced a Chilean pig until it grows to the size of a hippo, she distributes 26 of the animal’s piglets to farms around the world in order to have a contest to see who can raise the biggest, fattest and, though unspoken, yummiest, one of the bunch over the next ten years. We then jump forward a decade to a remote Korean village where young Mija (An Seo-hyun) spends her days playing and caring for the now full-grown (and then some) pig that she has named Okja. The two are practically inseparable, a fact that becomes evident at one point when Okja risks her own life to save Mija’s when she nearly plunges off the side of a mountain. It is too good to last, alas, and one day, a group of Mirando reps, led by TV spokesman Dr. Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal), arrive, deem Mija the winner and make plans to take her back to New York City to be shown off to the public.
Needless to say, the heartbroken Mija is not willing to take this news lying down and makes her way to Seoul to rescue her friend before she is shipped off to America. After infiltrating Mirando headquarters, she sees goons forcing Okja onto a truck heading for the airport and manages to leap onto the top of it as it is pulling away. Before she can do anything, however, the truck is waylaid by a group calling itself the Animal Liberation Front, a group led by Jay (Paul Dano) whose members vow never to hurt anyone if at all possible during their actions, even going so far as to apologize profusely to bystanders while in the thick of things. Mija is overjoyed that Okja is free but the group has bigger plans, Having replaced a camera hidden on Okja’s body with one of their own, they want to send the pig to America so that she can get surreptitious video of the top secret Mirando facilities in order to expose them to the public once and for all. However, Jay will not do this if Mija refuses to give consent but though she states that she just wants to take her home, the translator lies and says that she agrees to the mission. As Okja leaves for New York, Mija, who has now come to the attention of Mirando, who wish to use her love of Okja as a publicity gimmick, is following close behind in the hopes of rescuing her friend once and for all.
“Okja” was written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, whose previous credits include such international cult favorites as “Memories of Murder,” “The Host,” “Mother” and “Snowpiercer.” His specialty is to take familiar genre tropes and stand them on their heads with oddball narratives, sharp social satire and an ability to shift tones from weirdo humor to grisly horror at the drop of a hat. In the past, I have admired his work very much but in the case of “Okja,” he has created a film that is as conceptually bizarre and ambitious as his previous efforts but this time around, the execution is far more flawed than usual. For starters, it never seems sure of what kind of movie it wants to be—is it a family film with some unexpectedly adult elements thrown into the mix or is it an adult-oriented film using the framework of a family-oriented fantasy to make its points? Either way, it doesn’t quite work. If it is the former, then the adult moments—including multiple f-bombs and a horrifying tour of the inside of a slaughterhouse—will make it pretty much unsuitable for younger viewers and if it is the latter, then the film is simply too juvenile for its own good both in its ultimate message (which basically boils down to “Meat, Regardless of Derivation, Is Murder”) and in its approach. If Joon-ho had picked one and stuck with it, he might have wrestled it into something interesting but by attempting to blend the two, he has just come up with a story that is too much of a dramatic muddle for its own good.
Beyond the problems with the film’s approach, there are plenty of other aspects to “Okja” that are dubious at best and dire at worst. As even Joon-ho’s greatest supporters would have to acknowledge, he sometimes allows his storylines to meander at times and will throw scenes in that do little for his films other than extend the already healthy running times. That is certainly the case with “Okja,” which runs for just under 2 hours and which does drag in certain places thanks to scenes that either run on too long, restate things that have already or which come in from out of nowhere and which probably should have stayed there. Among the latter, the most egregious example is an ugly sequence in which the captured Okja is forced into a room at Mirando’s secret headquarters where she is the victim of the unwanted advances of a male version. I understand that this is meant to be the sequence in which we are meant to feel for Okja at her lowest moment while getting angry at Mirando but considering how gratuitous the sequence is (it isn’t as if they are trying to breed Okja since she is set for the slaughterhouse the very next night), one comes away from it feeling more upset at Joon-ho for the depths he has sunk to in order to score a reaction than at Mirando.
In fact, perhaps the only way to possibly explain that scene is to suggest that perhaps something got lost in translation along the way. That may also be the only way to explain what may be the strangest aspect of this very strange movie—the performances by Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, a trio of turns that are simply dumfounding. Yes, Joon-ho tends to like his actors to deliver somewhat stylized performances and his high artistic reputation means that there are any number of top actors willing to work for him and, more importantly, willing to go to extremes that you cannot imagine they would take part in if they were working for most ordinary filmmakers. Swinton, for example, gave a bizarre performance in Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” and apparently decided to top herself here as the two Mirando twins—one whose attempts to pass as a strong corporate leader are undone by her braces and pronounced lisp and one whose chilly indifference to anything standing in the way of her amassment of power is subtly suggested by her Hillary Clinton wig. Both performances are terrible but they are the kind of terrible that only a truly talented actor could accomplish—an ordinary hack would never dare go out on the kind of limb required for the lunacy Swinton offers up here. As for Gyllenhaal, his scenery-munching turn as the whining, egotistical TV host is so grating and so terribly off-putting that viewers will find themselves automatically flinching whenever he appears on the screen. Put it this way—his performance in the title role of “Bubble Boy” was a model of taste and restraint by comparison.
And yet, as terrible as “Okja” can be at times—and there are moments when it comes perilously close to feeling like the art-house version of “Monster Trucks,”—there are just enough other points where the film truly soars to keep you from completely dismissing it. Joon-ho and his army of technicians have managed to create in Okja a CGI creature that is genuinely convincing and which actually feels as if it is a part of the proceedings rather than like a separate element wedged in after the fact. The performance by Seo-Hyun Ahn as Mija is quite good as well as she manages to create a convincing and at times genuinely touching on-screen relationship with a CGI creature, a trick that tends to trip up many far more experienced actors. Some of the big action sequences are impressively staged as well with the highpoint being the springing of Okja from the clutches of Mirando in Seoul, which moves effortlessly from a high-speed truck chase through the city to Okja, Mija and the animal liberation people barreling through an indoor mall on foot while trying to evade capture. Some of the bits of weirdo humor strewn throughout are indeed amusing—I found myself smiling every time the Animal Liberation Front people would swing into action while at the same time apologizing in advance while stating that they do not mean any actual harm to anyone. Without giving too much away, I will also say that I liked the final moments as well, a slightly bittersweet conclusion that correctly negotiates between supplying viewers with a happy ending and avoiding giving them one that falls into sloppy sentimentality.If “Okja” had contained more winning minutes like those, I might have been able to see more clearly towards recommending it. After all, it is not entirely without its charms, it is pretty much a technical marvels throughout and it has an alternately weird and wicked strain of humor running through it. At the same time, it never quite seems to have a firm grasp of what it is trying to do, it goes on too long for its own good and some of the ingredients (such as the unfortunate Okja molestation and the even-more-unfortunate Jake Gyllenhaal performance) are so off-base that you have to wonder what Joon-ho could have possibly been thinking of when he approved of them. Still, while I cannot quite recommend it, I would not necessarily want to dissuade anyone who wants to see it from doing so especially if they have a chance to see it in one of its few big-screen engagements which will occur in conjunction with its premiere presentation on Netflix. I would, however, caution them to dial down their expectations to a reasonable level and, more importantly, to keep the younger kids away from it at all costs.
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