The Movie Waffler New Release Review - OKJA | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - OKJA

okja review
A young girl goes on the run with her pet genetically bred pig when it faces slaughter.

Review by John Bennett

Directed by: Bong Joon Ho

Starring: Seo-Hyun Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins, Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Dano

okja poster

The Iron Giant, E.T., Totoro - these are just some of the friendly behemoths and creatures whose monstrous presences have lingered in our cultural imagination as sources of comfort. A new and prominent addition to their ranks will no doubt be Okja, the giant loveable mutant pig that is the centerpiece of Bong Joon Ho’s action-comedy of the same name. Though you will no doubt fall in love with Okja’s porcine monstrosity, you may have mixed feelings about the film as a whole: though it is often entertaining, inventive, and intelligently critical of a big component of modern society, the film can also feel meandering, strained, and flat.


Okja begins with daffy pageantry as Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of the Mirando corporation, announces a new sustainably raised breed of pig that her company is cultivating for future consumption - breaking with what she cryptically refers to as the immoral business practices used by her father when he ran the business. She says that certain pigs are being sent to live with organic farmers across the globe to ensure they’re raised properly. Flash forward 10 years: we see one of the pigs living a peaceful existence high in a Korean mountain range, where she is lovingly cared for by Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) on her grandfather’s farm. The peace doesn’t last long - Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), the eccentric face of the Mirando Corporation comes to collect the Okja - as she has been named by Mija - to be slaughtered (the company has not been exactly forthcoming about how humanely they treat animals). But Mija, a strong-willed and resourceful young girl, will not allow her friend to be taken from her. She joins forces with a radical but peaceful environmental group, and soon their zany quest to save Okja and bring down the mendacious Mirando Corporation begins in earnest.

For its first half, Okja is a high-energy lark, proudly displaying Bong’s signature blend of thrills and fun, all captured with visuals that similarly alternate between being jaunty and cavernous. The impossibly verdant mountain forest that serves as the setting for Mija and Okja’s idyllic existence both underscores the joy they feel in each others’ presence while also standing in beautiful contrast to two tense early scenes that show this existence threatened. After Okja has been taken by the Mirando Corporation, Mija and the environmental group manage to liberate the pig in a dark tunnel, crowded with cars. In the darkness of the tunnel and in the dim clinical light of an adjoining shopping mall, the terrified and lumbering animal creates absolute havoc - a sequence marked by action set pieces that are both suspenseful and witty.

Not long after this chase sequence, however, Okja gradually, imperceptibly, grows to feel repetitive and unorganised. Two scenes of the scheming villains - one with Johnny Wilcox in the basement of the company’s abattoir and one with Lucy on the top floor of a skyscraper, are listless sequences that lack both the humour and the suspense of the rest of the film. In another scene, the radical group experiences infighting that feels extraneous when considering the film’s scope. What’s more, in its final sequences, Okja’s tone becomes disproportionately grim. There are some nice moments in the back-half of Okja that still remind you of Bong’s gifts as an imaginative storyteller, but the film looses its balance and never quite manages to regain it.


Some of Okja’s structural problems can be attributed to the flatness and poor integration of the cartoonish characters. As Dr. Wilcox, Gyllenhaal’s wacky over-the-top performance never meshes well with the rest of the film. Throughout the mutant pig’s entire traumatising saga, Gyllenhaal can’t quite make his goofiness land comfortably; it sits within Okja’s narrative like a troublesome invasive species. Though Gyllenhaal should be commended for experimenting with tone, expression, and physicality, it becomes distractingly clear that his experiment was unsuccessful. Swinton proves to be guilty of this as well, albeit on a lesser scale; her dual roles as the sisters whose destinies are tied to the family company also feel overly bright and showy. These performances (by very talented actors it must be said) are so ostentatious that they siphon much of the film’s sense of fun and sap it of much of its energy. As the leader of the animal rights radicals, Paul Dano integrates himself into the world of the film with far more subtlety than Okja’s other two major stars; his character, like the others, is cartoonish, but he is much more disciplined and in tune with the tone of the film as a whole. But the best performance is given by, without a doubt, Seo-huyn Ahn as Mija. Her pluck and emotional resolve make her a special kind of action hero - one who represents Okja’s heart when the film is at its best.

Ultimately, Okja may be most successful as a critical parable on how our food gets to us. Its environmental message is important, and it’s relayed with clarity and finesse: mass-produced meat production is wasteful and morally questionable. If Food Inc., the great, deep-digging documentary on Big Food, were a sci-fi action farce, the result would look something like Okja. As a gastronomic omnivore who lacks the resolve to renounce meat, knowing the environmental toll it takes, I felt as though Okja’s greatest asset was its ability to make its audience think seriously about the humane treatment of animals and the cost of meat production. In most social-issue movies, on-the-nose didacticism - though informative - renders their content both false and dull (a recent revisiting of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake confirmed this in a big way for me). Bong, however, integrates Okja’s environmental message into its narrative with relative subtlety. It’s just too bad the comedy/action side of the film, Bong’s supposed wheelhouse, grows to feel so flat and unsynchronised as the film unfolds.


Of course, it’s hard to have a comprehensive conversation about Okja without mentioning the special new place it will hold within film history. Okja is a major auteurist movie that, in most cases, will be viewed on a device of your choosing. Okja was financed and will be distributed (or perhaps diffused is the more fitting word) by Netflix, ensuring that the film will bypass theatrical distribution practically altogether. Okja premiered in competition for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but having that prestige behind it caused something of a tête-à-tête between the world’s premier film festival, which values cinematic traditions, and the world’s premier streaming service, which values technological innovation. The festival created new rules, effective in 2018, that for films to be eligible for competition status, they must have theatrical distribution in France at a minimum. Netflix bristled, hypothesising, with a degree of paranoia, that the backlash was cooked up by theatre chains. How this will change the way Bong’s film will be received by the public remains to be seen. My suspicion is that hardcore fans will love it while a larger audience will have the reaction they more or less should have: they will be entertained, moved, and galvanised into moral reflection by Okja (no small feat), but they also may not quite know how to square the film’s disparate modes and performances - a justifiable confusion that may be exacerbated by the film’s new and exploratory small-screen distribution.

Okja is on Netflix and in select UK cinemas June 28th.