There are two ways to take Bong Jong-Ho’s latest film Okja. On one hand it’s a Spielbergian fable, mixing E.T. with a message that meat is murder. On the other hand it may be a truly cynical fable, where saving those closest to you is good enough while slaughter continues, and that one can hide in their corner of the world oblivious to the dark horrors just over the horizon.
It’s tough to say what route the filmmakers believe – in discussion it seems the former vision was embraced my most of the performers, while director Bong and producer/actor Tilda Swinton alluded to the darker vision – but surely most audiences will take in the film on the more cathartic level where it’s a Neverending Story-like fable of a young child, a giant creature and the bond that they form.
With a campy opening we meet Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), big-toothed spokesperson for the Mirando corporation. Along with her second in command (Giancarlo Esposito) they’ve initiated a reality TV project to raise what they claim to be a truly “organic” new beast, a kind of giant pig that’s “fucking delicious!” Her hapless host and “face of the company” is Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) who speaks with a squeaky voice and has a mustache that would raise police suspicion if he was seen near schools.
We then meet Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) in a pastoral Korean setting, traipsing about with her Okja. The pig is one of ten around the world being raised as part of the contest. Okja crashes through the forest with her, and even saves her from falling into a crevasse. When Johnny and crew show up to declare Okja the winner, an animal liberation group (“we’re not terrorists!”) headed by Jay (Paul Dano) swoops in to try and mess up Mirando’s plan. Steven Yeun and Lili Collins are among the other activists who also wish to use Okja for their own purposes.
Shot by Darius Khondji, it’s fair to say the film is decidedly cinematic, even given the controversy at the Cannes screening regarding its Netflix roots. The Korean settings are suitably gorgeous, while the glossy urban boardrooms and filthy slaughterhouses are appropriately captured. As a metaphor the film is quite heavy handed, but it’s fascinating how the ambivalence the story shows to the various factions play out, with each managing in their own ways to compromise their ideals (excepting, of course, the purity of youth).
Okja itself lumbers around amiably, looking part hippo, part manatee, and the integration between live action and CGI works fairly well on the big screen. The performance are almost all cranked up to ten, particularly Tilda and Jake’s hysterical takes, and it’s satisfying to watch Paul Dano get to kick the shit out of someone else rather than always being on the receiving end of a Daniel Plainview-style whupping. And I particularly liked that the darker undercurrent included an allusion to the Bin Laden raid, the Last Supper-like tableau a throw-away moment that nonetheless speaks to the playfulness at work by the filmmakers.
It’s been over a decade since Bong’s The Host, and the director has lost none of his chops when it comes to pitting people against larger foes. Still, even with the likes of the much lauded Snowpiercer there are stylistic jumps that feel awkward and moments that simply don’t connect. There’s a breathlessness to it all, like it’s trying too hard to be too many things to too many people, and somewhere along the way the strands of story don’t quite all come together.
Still, as an affable kids movie with dark undertones the film works pretty well, raising questions that some may find more revelatory than others. Whether the film has the capacity to turn you vegan is another matter, for the film doesn’t linger too long on its advocacy. Ahn Seo-hyun is precocious and perfect, the international performers appropriately over-the-top, and the fable plays out pretty much how you’d want it to. A cynical take may find Okja a more interesting movie, but even on the surface it’s a decent, affable flick with a message that doesn’t get in the way of the adventure.