This year THE HOST and SNOWPIERCER director Bong Joon-ho made a truly one-of-a-kind movie. OKJA is a sweet girl-and-her-creature tale like MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO after it has been swallowed by a vicious satire of corporate greed and man’s treatment of animals. It’s produced by Netflix with an international cast, many of them speaking English, but its wild shifts in tone make it feel safely within the tradition of South Korean cinema.
It already seems bug-nuts from the opening, when aggressively-faux-enlightened Mirando Corporation CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, CONSTANTINE) gives her colorful presentation about the “discovery” of the allegedly miraculously eco-friendly “superpig” species and their plan to give them to farmers in 26 cities around the world to raise for ten years using their local traditions and then to crown one as the best.
The decade passes, and young Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun, the daughter in THE YELLOW SEA) lives an idyllic life in some mountains in Korea helping her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong, MEMORIES OF MURDER) take care of their superpig Okja. She’s bigger than a hippo – looks like a giant Eeyore – but limber enough to leap around like Ang Lee’s Hulk. Mija plays with her and rolls around on top of her belly and climbs inside her mouth to brush her teeth for her.
Then they receive a visitors from the corporation, including the famous TV zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, ACCIDENTAL LOVE), and Grandpa has hidden from Mija that they’re there to take Okja back. He seems to think she can be tricked or distracted into not being too upset about it. Instead she chases after the semi they take the superpig in and pulls an on-foot version of Seagal’s UNDER SIEGE 2 truck-to-train transfer. She turns into a little Jackie Chan, climbing around and dangling from the moving truck.
It gets dicey because she’s not the only one trying to save Okja. Another semi pulls up full of ski-masked Animal Liberation Front members: leader Jay (Paul Dano, PRISONERS), Korean-American translator K (Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead), Red (Lily Collins, PRIEST), Blond (Daniel Henshall, THE BABADOOK) and Silver (Devon Bostick, LAND OF THE DEAD). They manage to steal her, but it turns out their plan is to attach a recording device to her and then give her back so they can get proof of the horrible conditions they believe superpigs are being kept under at Mirando headquarters.
So Okja’s going back to the U.S. But the company decide to send Mija with her for
complicity publicity. Instead of playing along, she TOM YUM GOONGs right into the headquarters and tries to get her superpig back. And we do see the conditions – I think this might be the most vegetarian movie ever made. I’m not sure if that’s Bong’s message or if he’s just staying true to the material, but here is this magical creature we love, and now we see thousands like her packed together on a miserable factory farm. At the end (SPOILER) Mija saves Okja, but it doesn’t feel like FREE WILLY because instead of a glorious money shot of her achieving her freedom it’s a long, slow march through the filthy masses huddled together with no room to move, never letting you forget how many will never be free. The two movies that scene made me think of were SCHINDLER’S LIST and 12 YEARS A SLAVE. The movie with a cute CGI creature suffering from survivor’s guilt.
And that’s not even the most brutal part! That would be, in my opinion, when Okja is brought into a room for breeding. The ALF members are watching on their spycam and they’re devastated to realize that they’ve subjected this creature who they think they’re helping, who is this little girl’s best friend, to rape and forced pregnancy. I don’t normally think of animal breeding in those terms, but Bong sure got me to.
And yet, I swear to you, it’s a funny movie. Some of the humor, and particularly the characterization of the ALF members, reminds me of David O. Russell’s comedies. They’re definitely played comically – armed militants who apologize all the time and sometimes faint because of their environmentally-conscious starvation diets – but they don’t turn out to be frauds or hypocrites like in pretty much any movie ever made about people like that. There’s a pivotal scene where one makes a shockingly immoral decision for the cause, but he gets kicked out of the group for it and shows great remorse. All the corny talk about honor is sincere. They get to be the good guys, not just the punchline. And a post-credits sequence shows them continuing the fight, not giving up on the hope for a happy ending some day.
Dano gets one of the most Russell-esque lines: “Never mistranslate. Translation is sacred.” It’s a weird laugh line that underlines the movie’s themes of internationalism and communication. Here is this global conglomerate doing business all over the world and portraying it almost as an act of charity, a way to protect the environment and share between cultures. Even if that wasn’t bullshit, from Mija’s perspective all they’re doing is reaching their tentacles all the way to South Korea to mess up her life. That’s no good. On the other hand, the ALF crew are westerners traveling across the world to help. And the movie itself is an international effort, a Korean movie that’s also an American movie, in both country’s languages, also giving a featured role to our #1 Korean-American actor of the moment.
Swinton is really funny, too, in a dual role as twin sisters Lucy and Nancy Mirando. I like the reoccurring joke about Lucy being jealous of Nancy and putting inappropriate digs at her in all her speeches and interviews. Gyllenhaal goes way bigger than everyone else, doing a weird effeminate Rip Taylor type of character. I personally thought it was too much, but it’s definitely mega, and I’m sure some people will get a kick out of it. I did laugh at his ugly shorts and socks combo.
Bong wrote the movie with the Welsh writer Jon Ronson, author of the book The Men Who Stare At Goats and co-writer of the movie FRANK. The cinematographer is the great Darius Khondji (THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, SEVEN, EVITA).
OKJA is a hell of a movie. I can’t think of anything with a similar mix of dark humor, harrowing tragedy, moral outrage, adorable warmth, great special effects and exciting action sequences. Because it’s so outside of the expected it’s funny to see the drastically different comparisons people make in attempting to describe it. Here I was thinking I HEART HUCKABEES, while director Rian Johnson called it “1st movie in forever that’s made me feel like I’m watching an old school Amblin flick,” and my friend Matt Lynch compared it to Roald Dahl, saying that Swinton’s performance would fit right into THE WITCHES. I don’t get the Amblin vibe myself, but Dahl is right on – it’s got his sweet/spicy mix of imagination and cruelty, and there’s even a thrilling, sinister contest with ulterior motives, like a meaner Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
It’s too bad that OKJA will be inaccessible to some people since being made by Netflix means a negligible theatrical release and likely no DVD or Blu-Ray. But if that’s what it takes to get a crazy gem like this funded I guess it’s worth it. If you do have access to Netflix streaming it should not be missed.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.