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Okja

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.
This entry was posted on Monday, September 11th, 2017 at 11:14 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

13 Responses to “Okja”

  1. I have nothing insightful to say, other than that I freaking loved this movie. Maybe closest to THE HOST, in his oeuvre, with its wild mix of tones and giant creatures? Was lucky enough to see this projected in 35MM at the New Bev in LA. Not to be missed!

  2. Loved it. Gyllenhaal worked for me; his over the topness seems cloying but then you realize it masks this dangerously unhinged malice. The meat sampling scene is terrifying.

    I also thought it was one of Swinton’s most memorable roles, the rare twin performance where there’s not not really any big visual signifier to differentiate them, but the bad sis is instantly identifiable by her pure soulless malice. I love the image where she bites down on something at the end.

    One of my favorite films in this completely fucking insane year of films.

  3. why do i continue to listen to motherfuckers’ opinions on movies who aren’t motherfuckers from this community? i need to get my fucking head examined. pretty much everyone i know who saw this movie took a shit on it and told me to stay far, far away. from the sounds of things the issues they had with it was that it took risks, didn’t fit into a neat cinematic mould, was unusual, unlike most things anyone had ever seen before and defied easy genre or tonal classification. so pretty much exactly the kind of movie they should be recommending to me and standing in support of.

    thank you for the awesome review, vern. this has moved from near bottom of my “to-see list” to the very top.

  4. I totally get if this film doesn’t click with everybody, but I really liked it. It’s probably my least favourite of Bong Joon-Ho’s films that I’ve seen (MOTHER and MEMORIES OF MURDER are at the top), but that’s still head and shoulders above most films.

  5. Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuma?
    Oooooooooooooooooookja!

  6. The film (and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance) worked for me too. Bong Joon Ho is a great director. A master I think (his Memories of Murder is amazing) and I love Mother and Host too. And he sure has a different sense of humour (just watch his film Barking Dogs Never Bite for a great display of that).

    Great review as always Vern, thank you.

  7. That bit at the abattoir where they make the dead superpig roll over exactly in the same way Okja rolls while playing… goddamn. Really powerful movie.

  8. And again, a movie that I had no interest in watching, until Vern manages to make it sound interesting.

    The thing is, movies with such a strong environmental message, are usually very offputting to me. I know, I know, it makes me sound like one of those “Waaaah, stupid liberal Hollywood tries to shove their political correct agenda down my throat” shitroosters, but I swear it’s not that. While I agree that sublety isn’t really the best way to bring a certain message across, these movies often tend to use awfully cartoonish black and white thinking stereotypes, that make CAPTAIN PLANET look like a VERN TELLS IT LIKE IT IS column. And one of the main reason why I stayed away from OKJA, was that the cartoony “all poor people good, all rich people bad” charcterization of SNOWPIERCER was one of the reasons why it didn’t click with me.

    Okay, judging by Vern’s review, it sounds like there is still a lot of the stuff that I hate in these movies in OKJA, but at least it seems to wrapped in a more fun package. Although on the other hand, some of you guys most likely know that I’m not exactly a fan of the extreme tonal shifts of Asian cinema.

    But what do I know? At least I’m now more open to watch it, than I was before.

    BTW, Netflix releases some of their prestige shows (like OITNB, HOUSE OF CARDS or DAREDEVIL) on DVD, so I wonder if they will do this with their movies at some point too.

  9. Been really bad with this lately, looking forward to a movie or a new project from an creator, then drag my feet to view it when it comes out. Example: I was really excited to see ATOMIC BLONDE, then proceeded to take like a month to see. Same with this one. Love Bong Joon-ho’s movies but it took Vern’s review to finally push me to watch it this morning before work.

    As with Joon-ho’s other works I loved it. Can’t think of anything else to add that other’s haven’t already so I’ll just emphasized that I recommend it (considering you are open to a movie such a message).

    So thanks for pushing me to finally watch this one, Vern! If you could get around to other movies I really want to watch and then don’t for whatever reason that would be great!

  10. having worked at an American Apparel long ago, i’d bet actual money that Jake Gyllenhaal decided to play this character as an exaggerated version of that company’s former CEO, Dov Charney. (kinda like how Jesse Eisenberg is supposedly portraying Lex Luther as a Max Landis impersonation in that Superman movie) i have no proof for this, but trust me, the character’s appearance, voice, fashion decisions, behavior, and temperment are uncannily similar to Charney’s.

  11. Given the hype around Netflix’s use of big data and algorithms to make production decisions

    it’s hard not to smile at the irony of their funding a critique of designer consumer-capitalism. I’d love to see the Venn diagram for OKJA!

    But CJ, I’m not sure I buy your “all poor people good, all rich people bad” reading of SNOWPIERCER. I kinda felt they were all equally victims and that the only answer was – SPOILER ALERT -, to borrow a phrase, to blow the bloody doors off!

  12. And that Venn diagram again:

  13. Sorry. It looks fine when I submit.

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