Director: Bong Joon Ho
Cast: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Stephen Yeung, Lily Collins, Byun Hee-Bong, Giancarlo Espositio, Shirley Henderson, Yoon Je-moon
Plot: A young girl (Seo-hyun) cares for a genetically-modified Super-Pig, but then the company who created her demands her back for her meat.
Netflix have been gathering a recent reputation for making their audiences bawl at the eyes. First, 13 Reasons Why shocked us with ‘that’ ending and now we have Okja, a Korean-American collaboration (simmer down readers preparing for a political comment war below), that throws open the world of meat production with a harrowing story that will turn half of the viewers vegan and bring the others to tears at the horrors that are happening right now in the world on farms escaping free-range inspection.
Perhaps we should focus on reviewing this picture as a Boon Jooh-ho picture, rather than a Netflix original (an awkward term as it was bought rather than made by Netflix, explaining the jump in quality lacking in their actual home-grown features). Last time, we saw the Korean director, his film, Snowpiercer was tanking due to a restriction of cinematic releases, despite the fact Snowpiercer was outstandingly awesome. It means that with Okja we come into this film, expecting something politically charged, but not skimping on the fun too. While Okja is hardly as action-packed as Snowpiercer, the themes remain. We get a warm-hearted friendship between a young Asian girl (what a find with child actress Ahn Seo-hyun!), and her genetically modified ‘Super-Pig’ Okja. It will be interesting to see if this internet streaming release manages to sneak into the OSCARs when they come around, because the CGI on Okja is riveting. We feel love, fear and cheekiness radiating from the atmosphere surrounding the beast, as he progresses through the story, a loveable animal caught in the middle of an emotionally charged battle. The film’s opening bravely sticks to the Korean language, an audacious move by Joon-ho, but one that makes Okja feel more real. The film focuses on the close bond between girl and pet, Okja’s intelligence creating a relationship more akin to sisterhood than any sense of property or even inequality in power. Probably to help make the Korean language more accessible to the English-speaking viewer, the opening is largely mute, simply one girl, one animal and a luscious background. It is the antics and friendship that does the speaking for the picture, building this strong sense of adoration that is always essential to the success of films like this. If we do not care for Okja, then there isn’t really a movie at all. Look out for small flourishes of genius too. Okja and Mija (Seo-hyun) farm fish together, putting the younger catches back into the river alive. It proves that this isn’t necessarily a Vegan film per se, but a film about farming meat responsibly.
Then things get gloomy. It starts slowly at first, Gyllenhaal’s TV personality coming to Mija’s farm to meet Okja. The air is friendly, but as with any movie that features an animal that is likely to end up killed in the final act, the viewer is reluctant with trusting any foreign authority figure just entering the story. Even when these people are confirmed to be as bad as you’re expecting them to be, Joon-ho keeps the emphasis on fun. While it is disturbing to watch Okja in fear, with Mija hot on the corporation’s heels, the foreboding is kept at ease, Joon-ho making clever jests wherever he can to elevate the dripping tension. There are also some hero figures in Paul Dano’s animal activist terrorist group, who while not saintly, have similar goals to Mija, meaning that the odds are just strong enough to bring light to the picture. It also helps that the bad guys, Tilda Swinton’s egotistical and attention-seeking businesswoman and Jake Gyllenhaal’s oddball presenter hardly Bond villain levels of scheming. However, by the time, we hit the final third, we are in a completely different movie, feeling a lot more like the dystopian Snowpiercer with a bleak conclusion. Bong Joon-ho expertly pulls back the fun side of the movie to get to the gritty message hidden at the centre of the story. While he spares us the tragedy we are secretly fearing, he hardly holds back on the disturbing sense of dread, hitting us with a emotional conclusion to the story. It would be ill fitting to call it a twist, because the horrific inevitability of the events of Okja are half the strength of the narrative. As the film drifts to a close, there is a sense of numb denial at the bleakness of how the movie has chosen to end. But how can we experience denial when the situation was so clearly explained to us? Perhaps this denial over the obvious is the perfect sensation to put with the dangerously controversial topic of meat farming and abattoirs. We have buried our heads in the sand for too long, the convenience of slaughter too much to turn down, but the horrors too dark to comprehend.
But fear not, Okja isn’t just a gloomy affair. Joon-ho’s movie is a holistic one and almost every angle works. For one, most of the casting is superb. Ahn Seo-hyun is a revelation, a child actor better than her years, showing dashes of stubborn heroism and honest emotion. Paul Dano feels liberated in the kind of hero role he doesn’t usually get offered, bringing his own sympathetic gravitas and kookiness to the stock character. The cast is also bulkier that you would expect from a Korean director whose last film failed to get a cinematic release, perhaps suggesting just how many stars we attracted to the power of this script. The Walking Dead’s Stephen Yeung provides a light-hearted lieutenant for Dano. Shirley Henderson has a background character that she brings to life with little more than a snarky comment under her breath. Giancarlo Espositio brings some of his subtle menace from Breaking Bad and applies it to what could have been a rote background villain. Of course, it is Tilda Swinton that the fans will be talking about for some time, in a role that she can really dig her teeth into. Swinton is the kind of actress who is so talented, she seems physically different in every role that she does. With Joon-ho, who she worked with on Snowpiercer, she perhaps feels the most liberated and alive. With her business CEO, Lucy Mirando, she is a ball of chaotic energy, delivering self-obsessed monologues into the crowds with a toothy smile and too much make-up. Swinton has openly said in interviews Donald Trump was a strong basis for her character, a ruthless leader that had too much dependence on public opinion. It bleeds through her character, a gloriously horrible figure that a film like Okja primes for a gruesome ending. Sadly, the fact Okja is more realistic than Snowpiercer means that she is unlikely to actually get it. It isn’t just the cast that shines but Joon-ho’s expert pacing. While Okja’s sadder moments will earn the biggest talking points, the most impressive pieces of story-telling are the smaller beats. Mija chases after a truck carrying her captive pet and you expect the truck to dash off into the distance and her friend to be lost forever. What follows is a heart-soaring example of the power of courage and friendship. A chase through a mall sees Okja rival King Kong’s finale for mayhem on an unsuspecting human population. This is where some of the smaller Korean actors earn their stripes, lesser known than the American ones, but just as game for Okja. One extra flees from Okja, while recording the video on a selfie stick. Yes, there is a lot to recommend about Okja. Jake Gyllenhaal, however, is not one of them. In fact, Okja works as a reminder that even the best actors can drop the ball from time to time. Gyllenhaal is a superb performer, easily celebrated when bringing the creepy lead of Nightcrawler to life or working under Denis Villeneuve to create an unique take on a cop character, but here, he is almost unrecognisable through the void of depth in his supporting role. Played for broad laughs that instead just put a dampener on scenes (including one moment that should have been one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the film), cackling in an over-the-top ‘accent?’. In a film that does so much right with an actor that once could do no wrong, Gyllenhaal totally, absolutely, lets the movie down.
Final Verdict: Gyllenhaal aside, Okja is a terrific tear-jerker that opens up a dangerous can of worms and exposes the truth in a raw, painful way.