Okja is a technically well crafted and bold movie that offers a charming parable with a thought-provoking commentary on animal cruelty, mass production, and corporate capitalism, resulting into a subtle yet effective call for ethical food production.
For 10 idyllic years, young Mija (An Seo Hyun) has been caretaker and constant companion to Okja — a massive animal and an even bigger friend — at her home in the mountains of South Korea. But that changes when the family-owned multinational conglomerate Mirando Corporation takes Okja for themselves and transports her to New York, where image obsessed and self-promoting CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has big plans for Mija’s dearest friend. With no particular plan but single-minded in intent, Mija sets out on a rescue mission, but her already daunting journey quickly becomes more complicated when she crosses paths with disparate groups of capitalists, demonstrators and consumers, each battling to control the fate of Okja… while all Mija wants to do is bring her friend home. [Netflix]
We’ve all seen one at some point, the classic tale of friendship between an animal and a kid. However, very few dare to step out of the feel good safety of its format. Bong Joon-Ho makes his own sci-fi twist to the story.
Okja, as you have already seen from its trailers, is a friendship between a girl and a super pig. The pot belied swine is a mix of a hippo, a pig and a manatee with the personality of a dog. As these stories often go, greed gets in the way and ruins everything.
The plot audaciously takes dark satirical turns to inject a realistic perspective to what is typically a family feel good story. Okja doesn’t shy away from animal cruelty and corporate capitalism. At the same time it subtly tackles food production and consumerism. There’s still plenty of fun to be had though as the story becomes an action comedy as Mika tries to save Okja through sheer will.
As what you would expect from the creator of Snowpiercer, the action sequences are common scenarios turned into outlandish funny moments. After rampaging and stumbling around in an underground tunnel, Okja is saved from tranquilizer darts by umbrella wielding A.L.F members while Annie’s Song play in the background.
The movie is shot in bright widescreen which makes it a good fit for the cinema. The visual effects of Okja is a technical feat that combined CG and puppetry to lend physicality to the creature. Production design and special effects helped with set pieces and character animation. Here, Okja is treated as a character and interacts with others.
While Okja takes the classic tale of animal friendship to the next level, the movie often goes off the rails in different directions.
The story pinballs between sentimental and satirical. The over the top satire takes away from the serious message of the story and reduces characters into caricatures. Tilda Swinton is amusing and Seo-Hyun Ahn has a strong presence, but Jake Gyllenhaal is unwatchable while the rest have little to do. Giancarlo Esposito at least manages to inject nuance behind Lucy’s reign with his character’s low key schemes.
The main narrative also tends to get distracted by underdeveloped subplots involving her twin and the PETA inspired Animal Liberation Front. While Mika just wants to get Okja home, the super pig has become a trophy between two competing agendas.
In fairness, even these efforts speak about the ambition of the movie. Bong Joon-ho wants to show us a bigger picture behind Okja and Mija (the insidious yet effective PR machinery of corporations and harsh truth about mass production) while subtly telling us what we can learn from their life (free range food production and sustainable farming).
There’s also a striking undercurrent here. The movie tells us that empathy is overshadowed by self-interest and arrogance while nature bears the brunt of the damage. But the fact that that crucial element of humanity still exist, means its not impossible for change.
Okja ends with a jarringly dark but emotionally satisfying pay-off that reinforces these messages into the story without being preachy or pandering to the audience.
Okja, just like its titular character, is an ungainly bizarre hybrid – one part family movie, one part action adventure, and one part dark satire. However it can also be said that this is what saves it from being another formulaic hallmark movie about an animal and her human. It’s a technically impressive movie with bold statements that are worth pondering about.
My Rating: 8/10
PS: stay for the post credit scenes.