Movie Review: Okja.
Bong Joon Ho’s latest film once again flirts with big questions only to offer small, personal answers.
South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has become a bit of an enigma for me. His stories are stylish, beautifully filmed, filled with excellent performances, and yet end up feeling vaguely unfulfilling. Much like his cross-over debut, Snowpiercer, Okja is a drama about the interplay between ecology and normal people, about power and rebellion against power, and about how responsibility shirked means tragedy reaped. Also like Snowpiercer, Okja feels like it raises the specter of these thorny issues as plot devices to drive the narrative instead of to inform the audience’s sensibilities.
A new CEO at a gigantic agriculture company with a dark history tries to re-brand itself by creating adorable “super pigs.” It sends these cute little porkers out to 23 small farms across the world, promising wealth and prosperity to whoever can raise the best oinker. A very small farm in Korea receives Okja, an extremely smart piglet who quickly grows into a giant under the love and care of a girl named Mija and her grandfather. When the contest ends and Okja is taken away, Mija goes on an adventure to find and save her porcine pal.
Parental Guidance Suggested.
When I reviewed the trailer, I must have missed the F bomb Tilda Swinton drops casually at the start. I’m used to the traditional trailer rating system, so it never crossed my mind that this film was rated TV-MA because of all of the cute and colorful aspects to the trailer. Make no mistake, this film is for adults. Many farm-based films have hard kernels of adult lessons (looking at you, Old Yeller) but this film goes beyond that to include salty language, violence, animal cruelty, and disturbing imagery. The kids are going to have to sit this one out, despite how adorable Okja looks in the promo material.
Okja has a tremendous cast, and they all pretty much give great performances. Tilda Swinton plays both of the main antagonists, and she’s delightfully menacing and otherworldly as usual. Paul Dano continues to make me a fan of his work, playing an animal rights activist/terrorist who tries to free Okja and aid Mija. Ahn Seo-Hyeon plays young Mija, and she’s a firecracker: tough, pugnacious, and usually much smarter than the adults around her. Jake Gyllenhaal gives an odd performance as a washed-up animal show celebrity who aids the mega-corporation; he’s shrill and fickle but has a twisted devotion to animals. I didn’t love him, but he’s effective.
Here comes the “but…” segment.
The cast is talented and strong, but…the characters are really static. They’re not flat; they all seem to exist in grey zones where they’re kinda virtuous and kinda shitty at the same time. The real problem is that they don’t grow.
Mija at the start is the same as Mija at the end. Tilda Swinton learns nothing from nearly ruining her company a second time. In a stinger, Paul Dano gets out of prison and goes right back to plotting activist raids. The only person who grows at all is Steven Yeun, who ends up being my favorite character. He is the translator for the activists, and he chafes under Dano’s purity standards. He fucks up, gets thrown out of the group, and eventually saves the day after learning his lesson. Character progression 101, and it works.
The part of the film that may seem the most controversial ends up being the most prosaic: Bong Joon-Ho dares to show us how our meat is made. The major theme is the machinations of the Mirando Corporation (read: Monsanto) as they try to achieve a laudable goal (read: feeding an exploding population with pigs that are Eco-friendly) by a shitty method (illicit genetic testing, factory farming, cruel breeding practices, etc.) While the director tries to keep an even hand, the rhetoric has been so infected by food warriors that Mirando can’t help but become a cartoonish villain.
There is an attempt to show both sides. Tilda remarks “it’s not our fault people overreact to GM food” and her sister later states “if the food is cheap, people are going to buy it.” Both of which are true. We gotta eat, and we gotta get it somewhere, and it’s shitty that scientists who make high-yield pigs and pest-resistant crops are automatically the bad guys in any movie they appear in. At the end of the day, though, they end up being just the baddies and we’re rooting for one girl to save one pig…while walking away from a slaughter house full of thousands of identical pigs.
Much like Snowpiercer, there were moments where Okja could have said more. These are big issues, with big consequences, and many people have a big stake in one side or the other. Ultimately, those issues just don’t factor into making this movie. Bong Joon-Ho makes a visually appealing, smartly paced rescue movie about a little girl saving her prized pig.
For all of the cultural baggage, that is what the whole thing boils down to. And it works. The film is engaging and well made, and I was entertained the whole way through. After watching it, the niggling questions rose up about how certain philosophical arguments could have been advanced or better served, but that’s not Joon-Ho’s intent, apparently. He made a good movie. His big contribution to the argument may have been simply to show it: there are no wicked witches or white knights in this contest, and we’re the ones putting tiny little Okja’s on our plate every week for good or ill. If anything here is a crime, we’re all implicated, and Bong Joon-Ho is just pointing a camera at it.