dir: Bong Joon-ho
Sublime. Silly. Surreal.
That’s my all encompassing take on Korean cinema in general and the films of Bong Joon-ho in particular. Like all generalisations, it ignores a lot of nuances and detail to say something so simplistic and reductive, but, hey, at least I just made a generalisation about generalisations.
I would not be exaggerating to say that Okja is the strange reason I started subscribing to Netflix. Having had the ‘flix for the last month or so, and this isn’t a thinly veiled ad for the service, I can honestly say, what the fuck was I waiting for? Not to blow too much smoke up their collective arses, but it is incredible how much stuff I’ve gotten to watch through subscribing to this service. How did I live before…?
And why was it Okja that broke the seal on my intransigence? I dunno, but for some reason I was enthralled by its existence, and I couldn’t think of any other way to watch it when I wanted to watch, which was the day of its release, soon after its premiere at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where it received… tepid to okay reviews. The main point of contention at the time, if I recall (it’s not like I was there, it’s just what I read), that many of the people at the screenings objected to something being promoted at Cannes that wasn’t really intended for cinemas, despite the much bigger budget that Bong had access to, which was probably bigger than all the other film budgets he’s ever had combined.
I don’t know how to feel about that. It’s seems a bit Luddite, a bit petty, and a bit wilfully ignorant of the changes in the media landscape to boo a film before it’s even screened with a nasally French accent to the booing, no less. I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed in this life that denying something is happening doesn’t actually make that thing not happen. If it did, I can assure you, a lot of stuff that happened this year never would have troubled us, because they would have been willed out of existence.
Yes, I am a fan of Bong Joon-ho, I guess, and the premise sounded interesting, but really it was the presence of Tilda Swinton in dual roles that appealed to me really, because I absolutely have to watch every film with Tilda in it ever, and I will do so until I die. I adore Tilda even when the film she’s in is terrible, or when her role is bizarre (which is many of them, truth be told).
Really, though, even if she is pretty good in this playing two distinctly different terrible people, she is the least element of the craziness on display here. There is just so much going on, and there are so many different films within this one film, and it mostly (maybe?) hangs together.
Accepting money makes whores of us all, truth be told, so Bong receiving money from Netflix for this movie probably necessitated a lot of conditions in terms of what had to be in the flick. There are so many non-Koreans in this flick, and yet so much of it is in Korean that it’s like a strange play put on by two different directors. The Americans and Brits (I would never call Tilda a Brit, that’s a mortal insult since she’s Scottish) are in one flick, and Ahn Seo-hyun as the main character and Okja, the superpig of the title, are in another, and quite often but not always the two meet in exciting and disturbing ways.
You read that right: Okja is a Superpig! Not as in she fights crimes and solves mysteries and shit, I mean she is a genetically engineered massive pig-like creation created by the Mirando corporation for the purposes of lulling the public in a massive expansion in the meat production industry.
Vegetarians and vegans especially beware: this flick isn’t entirely Meat is Murder or anything, but it certainly doesn’t paint a pretty picture of that industry many of us support by eating creatures raised and slaughtered for profit.
We all, or at least those of us drowning in Western privilege know that eating cats, dogs and dolphins is inherently ‘wrong’, and we know that eating chickens, pigs, cows and lambs is okay, because we just do it, so it must be okay. Ethically most of us don’t care about what happened to what we’re eating as long as it tastes good. Others delude themselves into believing it makes a difference if the creature we’re consuming had a happy life on an organic farm before it was ruthlessly slaughtered for our enjoyment. Because, you know, it makes a big difference to the creature whose existence is being snuffed out. Sure it does, Paddock to Plate devotees, sure it does.
Well, if we genetically engineer a gigantic creature in such a way that it makes it more resistant to disease, requiring less food and produces less greenhouse gases and results in meat way healthier that will make us all more attractive and smarter, and from which massive profits will flow, why shouldn’t it happen? Ethically problematic? Well, don’t worry, because Monsanto, I mean, sorry, Mirando, has a long term marketing strategy to get the world used to these abominations unto the Lord before they bring them to the supermarket.
As part of this ‘competition’, one of the superpigs is given to a Korean agricultural family that lives in the mountains. They call their one Okja, which probably means “smart and tasty” or something (it might stun you to know I don’t know Korean yet). So Okja grows up with a family, bonding with the girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), especially since the death of her parents at the hands of an evil mountain probably.
When the company comes calling, they assure Mija and her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) that it’s time for Okja to go to New York to be entered into a competition to see who has brought up the greatest superpig of them all. There will be a pageant, and a swimsuit competition probably, and then the winner will be crowned queen of Modern Industrial Livestock Production or some such nonsense.
Mija don’t buy none of this bullshit. She knows without any evidence that the fix is in, because of course it is, and we know the fix is in because we’ve watched the merciless corporate jerks led by Lucy Mirando (Swinton), who lives in perpetual terror of her even eviller sister Nancy (also Swinton), and they’ve openly told us the strategy, fiendish in its intricacies. But these jerks never reckoned with the awesome determination of a girl who loves her pet, or with the determination of a strange group of animal liberationists led by Jay (Paul Dano) and the perversely non-violent until they become violent lengths they’ll go to in order to save Okja(?) At least we think that’s what’s going on.
Regardless of the age of what we would think is the protagonist, this is a very dark film. The attitude the flick has towards the corporate chicanery is of course jaded and cynical, but there really is a somewhat sadistic streak running through some of the protagonists. The usual standard protocol in depicting the corporate mentality in movies is to show their wholesale indifference to the suffering their actions or inactions cause in large swathes of the population, granted, and that’s present here too, but with some of the characters that Mija must prevail against, they’re really some horrible people who personally seem to derive pleasure from the horrors they are inflicting on specific individuals, like Okja and her ‘family’.
A lot of the corporate stuff seems directly lifted from Fast Food Nation (both the book by Eric Schlosser and the Richard Linklater movie very loosely based on it), which I would never accuse Bong Joon-ho of reading or ripping off, but for the very American specific meat industry stuff, and the strange activists, well, those parts of the screenplay are clearly Jon Ronson, known for books like The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Psychopath Test and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
Clearly he’s the one who felt comfortable lifting whole sections from Fast Food Nation.
But who do we blame for the Jake Gyllenhaal performance in this flick?
Who indeed? That character should be at the Hague in the Netherlands in front of the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity, overacting and whatever species they decide the superpigs are. That performance is like nothing I’ve seen on the screen in decades. I mean, I’ve seen behaviour like that on public transport, in certain alleyways, during certain political speeches, but not very often.
Onscreen? Well, he is… astounding in his own way. Like the strange lovechild of Roberto Benigni and Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, Gyllenhaal plays this demented tv host and zoologist who seems to love animals a bit too much, but is also easily and willingly in the pocket of Mirando because it lets him do unspeakable things to the superpigs. I’m guessing, in early versions of the script it was overtly sexual, but it thankfully was rendered more euphemistic, let’s say, for which I am eternally grateful (I did make the great parenting decision to watch this with my daughter, so feel free to call Child Services whenever you have a spare moment).
The demented character doesn’t really serve much of a purpose beyond being another uncontrollable element in a story overstuffed with them, but he is entertaining.
Far more important, though, is the relationship of Mija and the activists trying to help Okja for their own nefarious purpose. One of the activists, Kay, played by Steve Yuen of Walking Dead fame, plays a crucial role in the story acting as translator between the other members and Mija. This leads to an especially fraught moment once the issue of translating honestly leads to a tremendous lie or misunderstanding between Mija and the others, and amongst the other activists, leading to a great moment where a pacifist non-violent activist feels compelled to beat the crap out of someone for righteous reasons.
Whatever the hell it was that Gyllenhaal was doing in this flick, Paul Dano seems to be doing the exact opposite, and he plays the mostly serene leader of the animal lovers with plenty of zen and just a tiny bit of weirdness. And he also generates a lot of the humour in the story.
There is a fair bit of humour in the flick, of all the varieties you can think of, which also means that tonally the flick is all over the map, veering from jokes about shitting animals to the strange rarefied ways of corporate elites to slapstick and heist style action, before the horrors of the slaughterhouse are revealed. And it’s hard, sometimes, to know what the hell we’re meant to think about it all a lot of the time. It’s a pretty weird movie, truth be told.
And I think I loved it for it. I’ve barely talked about the creature herself, though she’s pretty crucial to the story. She’s not, as a CGI creation, as compelling a cinematic presence as, say, Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes movies, but she’s pretty adorable, in a monstrous affectionate hippo kind of way. They wisely make her nice enough in a believably domesticated animal way but never going so far as to imply that, if only she had opposable thumbs, she and her kind would be ruling the world. She’s intelligent, and cares about Mija, but she’s a confused animal in this world, just like the rest of us.
How they managed to construct and sell a happy ending for this flick I’ll never know, but somehow they did, which brought me tremendous relief, for Mija and Okja too, though we remain keenly aware that animals just like Okja keep meeting their fates in similar circumstances, and maybe they’re not as cute, but as long as they stay tasty, we’re not going to cry too many tears over them.
It’s a pretty unique movie, entertaining and thoughtful, cynical and hopeful, and certainly worth my time.
Okja stands alone, and because of that, stands tall.
8 times the only thing better than a movie with a Tilda Swinton performance is a movie with two Tilda Swinton performances out of 10
“Fuck off! We're extremely proud of our achievements. We're very hardworking business-people. We do deals, and these are the deals we do. This is the tenderloin for the sophisticated restaurants. The Mexicans love the feet. I know. Go figure! We all love the face and the anus, as American as apple pie! Hot dogs. It's all edible. All edible, except the squeal.” – that’s, um, very inspiring indeed - Okja