Cast: Ahn Seo-Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Dano, Hee-Bong Byun, Shirley Henderson
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
There's a salient message at the heart of Bong Joon-ho’s Okja which speaks to the ways in which we use the trusting nature of animals for our own ends, slaughtering them for mass food consumption without ever questioning such actions. Such a message is notable, and in many ways absolutely necessary, but the heart of Bong's film--the nurturing relationship between young Korean farm girl Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) and the titular creature-- speaks for itself. Unfortuantely, the director also feels the need to push the issue with bludgeoning satire; doling out cartoonish corporate big-wigs and shrill farce which overwhelms the simplistic beauty of Mija and Okja's friendship.
The film is at its best during the first act, where we witness Okja (who resembles a hippo by way of lab retriever) bonding with Mija in the Korean wilderness where she lives with her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong). During one lovely sequence, Mija tumbles off a cliff and is saved by the gentle giant, which Bong captures with a rapt awe conjuring the best of Spielberg and Miyazaki. In terms of special effects, Okja is a marvelous creation; seamlessly blending into the natural environments and for the most part, believably interacting onscreen with human characters. Of course, capturing companionship moments between a child and her fantastic creature are meant to gear us up for the inevitable gut-punch, and Okja is no exception.
During a 2007 prologue in which the head of the Mirando Corporation, Lucy (Tilda Swinton) announces her plan to end world hunger by dispersing pigs across the world to farmers for a 10-year period, we get a fairly clear picture of where the narrative is heading. Of course, Okja is deemed the biggest and best of their creations, and is therefore shuttled off to New York City in order to be paraded before the public en route to the eventual corporate slaughter. There's an Animal Rights Activist group on hand, led by Jay (Paul Dano) an idealistic rouge who hopes to rescue and return Okja to her natural habitant, as well as a Steve Irwin-esque TV show personality (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose ultimate motivations are never really made clear beyond greed and vanity. At around the mid-point, Okja transforms from a touching Charolette's Web-influenced children's film into a violent, frantically-paced action picture; full of spirited foot chases, careening vehicles, and gunfire. While this shift is relatively clunky from a tonal perspective, Bong does stage the action set pieces with considerable flair, including one bravura sequence inside a strip mall where Okja, flanked by the militant Animal Rights group, plunges headlong through everything in her path.
The visions of mass slaughterhouses and the ways in which Okja is taken hostage and violated, are necessary components for driving home the film's message about capitalism and the heartlessness of corporate greed, but Bong oversteps by heightening the satire to the point of no return. Swinton, playing dual roles, is mugging for no apparent reason, but she's a model of restraint compared to Gyllenhaal, who unleashes one of the most unhinged, self-indulgent performances in recent memory. While it's true that farce in Korean cinema has a zany quality, plugging American actors into these scenarios dulls the effect and just looks like showboating. Worse of all, this kind of over-ripe satire completely drowns out what had made Okja such a special film up until a certain point; namely, the elegant power of Mija and Okja's relationship.
Had Bong side-stepped the tonal miscalculation of playing the corporate world as hyperactive cartoons, instead focusing on deepening Ahn’s heartbreaking performance and the toll Okja's loss has on her psychological and emotional state, then the film may have transcended the sum of its many moving parts. Instead, it comes across like a well-meaning PSA announcement regarding the horrors of capitalism. The fact of the matter is that all of us, no matter how well-intentioned, enable corporations to continue their horrific practices every day. By giving us grotesque caricatures of this world, Bong dilutes our complicity in Okja's suffering by allowing us to laugh at these corporate goons and root for their downfall. The real truth, however, is less simplistic and intrinsically tied up in socially conditioned behaviors. It's too easy to simply mock major corporations while feeling superior to their inanity, and Okja, for all it's fable-like charm, can't overcome its heavy-handedness as moral lesson.