I didn’t know much about Okja before watching it other than seeing it make headlines at Cannes and then the promo images on Netflix. What the movie delivers is far beyond the fantastical premise and actually ends up becoming a emotionally spirited gem. The film opens to Tilda Swinton’s Lucy Mirando, head of the Mirando corporation which is apparently a piece of shit company trying to turn their image around. She announces that they’ve found a new species of superpig and have sent one off to every corner of the world to be tended by a farmer. The farmer with the best pig in ten years will win an award. Flash forward ten years to the Korean ranch and Mija, played by Korean TV star Seo-Hyun Ahn, is a little girl who has raised her superpig as her best friend. Really, I think we both thought we knew where this was going, and on most accounts, we were right. But Joon-ho Bong’s script and characters get there in a way that is exciting and righteous as it horrifically questions the world that we live in.
Tex, I’d say there’s obviously a ton of social commentary here, but what did you think of the first half of the movie before you learn about the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and their plan?
I’m going to start this off by saying something I typically try and avoid saying about movies: Okja is special. It’s not perfect, it doesn’t always work, but it is always uniquely “Okja.” The early scenes of the movie evoke Spielberg‘s E.T. to a degree, but I found myself reminded of more bucolic adventures like Old Yeller or Charlotte’s Web. The opening scenes where we are introduced to Okja the superpig and her human Mija are absolutely delightful. The Korean countryside is gorgeously photographed by Darius Khondji (who did equally brilliant work on The Lost City of Z earlier this year.) For the first half hour of the movie I was completely convinced that true contentment lies at the top of a mountain, napping in the afternoon sun with your pet superpig.
I agree with you though, the plot of the movie isn’t particularly hard to predict, though the way in which it remixes familiar beats was always fresh and surprising. I think the first time you see/hear Jake Gyllenhaal’s Johnny Wilcox is a perfect example. It’s a performance that I’m not certain works, frankly it may be terrible. Or perfect. Whatever, it doesn’t really matter, the point is I haven’t seen anything like it, and that is Okja as a whole; consistently, delightfully, sometimes terrifyingly surprising.
I’ve heard some rumblings from “the internet” indicating that the movie’s tonal shifts in the second and third acts are too jarring and don’t really work, how did you feel about that? Did you think the movie starts to fall apart as it shifts tones?
Why do you always think stuff is like E.T.? This is nothing like E.T. and I’m not looking up “bucolic” but I think I get the point. I would have more compared it to an anime but I can agree about the gorgeous part. Yeah, I’ve talked to a few people who hated the way Gyllenhaal went with this character. I’m a fan of his now that he’s put enough distance between Donnie Darko and Bubble Boy (Donnie Darko sucks, come at me, internet!) and I think that he did something different but he did not step out of his range. He was totally in control of that character. And what is Johnny Wilcox other than another layer of corporate corruption? He’s a zany kid’s show host who turns the energy up to get the young ones to love animals as much as he does, but with the Mirando pay checks comes horrible things that he can’t forgive himself for doing and it’s tearing him apart.
The tonal shifts are glaring. I mean at one point Mija’s knocking on the door of Mirando’s Korean headquarters asking for her pet back and then four minutes later there is a Chris Nolan-esque truck chase scene through the tunnels of Seoul, but it worked for me. In fact, it made me more engaged because it kicked the movie into high-gear. This sequence unfolds as the ALF team tell Mija that their plan is to send Okja into the labs of Mirando with a hidden camera. It’s about fifteen minutes after that the film shifts again. It spends the rest of the third act in New York, painting Lucy and her company a villainous acapitalists who force Okja into brutal mating, surgical experiments and chemical doses all in the name of the perfect sausage while Mija waits in a hotel room to be reunited with her.
I’m an animal lover and this was rough for me to watch and where before Okja was a loveable sidekick, she’s now the focus of the movie. What comes next is an amazing example of a theatrical climax, I think we can both at least agree on that.
First of all, it is like E.T in that a child befriends an otherworldly creature that livens up his pedestrian little life and then has to fight The Man to stay with said creature. Secondly, “bucolic” is basically another term for pleasant countryside but I saved no time in using it since apparently you haven’t cracked a book sense The Bernstein Bears Learn to Share. Anyway, back to Okja.
Full disclosure, I am not really an animal guy so I fully expected to loathe Paul Dano and his group of animal rescue fanatics. Once again the movie zigged when I expected it to zag. These were not your typical hacky-sack hippies, they were well disciplined, idiosyncratic professionals. Dano has a great scene where he beats the crap out of a fellow ALF member for lying. So yeah, when the movie took a hard right turn into corporate espionage thriller I was still fully on board. The action is all well staged and tense with a clear sense of geography, something that these kinds of hybrid action/comedy/drama’s often get wrong. Like Edgar Wright, the action is fully formed and never feels cheap or tacked on.
The final reel is where the movie reached right into my tiny, animal ambivalent heart and squeezed. Hard. I think that Boon can safely claim authorship of the first ever superpig rape in cinematic history. The brutality of the slaughterhouse isn’t just played as PETA propaganda either, this is not an anti-meat movie so much as it is anti-corporate greed. I don’t want to go too far into spoiler territory but some of the closing shots of this movie absolutely gutted me. I’m giving Okja 4 out of 5 bacon strips. See it.
I say Chris Nolan you say Edgar Wright, I think there’s a disconnect here but anyway, it’s all bucolic in the hood.
We can both agree on the final sequence. That was a emotional battering that everyone needs to take. I began to describe it here, but words aren’t going to do it justice. The message is important, it’s human and it’s coming at a time when, globally, greed and indifference is under a magnifying glass. Okja is one of the best movies you’re going to watch all year and on top of that, we all might be less asshole-ish when the credits roll. See it.