Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Films of Bong Joon-ho: Okja (2017)

Okja (2017) 
Directed by: Joon-ho Bong.
Written by: Joon-ho Bong and Jon Ronson.
Starring: Seo-hyun Ahn (Mija), Tilda Swinton (Lucy Mirando / Nancy Mirando), Jose Carias (Señor Villacorta), Giancarlo Esposito (Frank Dawson), Jake Gyllenhaal (Johnny Wilcox), Jeong-eun Lee (Okja's Voice / Woman in Wheelchair), Hee-Bong Byun (Hee Bong), Jaein Kim (Young Mija), Je-mun Yun (Mundo Park), Shirley Henderson (Jennifer), Woo-sik Choi (Kim), Steven Yeun (K), Paul Dano (Jay), Daniel Henshall (Blond), Lily Collins (Red), Devon Bostick (Silver), Waris Ahluwalia (Waris), Phillip Garcia (Diego Alejandro).
Okja is such an ambitious film – a film that is so jam packed with narrative, characters, themes, etc. – that when I watched it the first time back in 2017, I think I underrated it somewhat. At first glance, the film can seem like kind of a mess – lashing out in many different directions, that it seemed to lack focus. Watching it again though, the piece’s kind of fall into place in a better way – and the emotional core of the film – the relationship between a little girl and her giant pig – is still so moving, that it carries the film through. I really liked the film in 2017 – I think I may love it now.
Okja takes place in the near future – where a worldwide food crisis is in effect, so the Mirando Corporation has created a new so-called Superpig. This pig will be providing meat to everyone – and do a lot more. To promote this, Mirando has given a 1 super pig to 10 farmers around the world, and for 10 years they’ll raise it however they see it. We concentrate on the Korean farmer – specifically, his granddaughter Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn), who grows up with their super pig – named Okja – and bond with him. When the 10 years are up, and Mirando comes calling for their pig, she doesn’t want to give him up – but she doesn’t much have a choice.
What follows from there is the part of the film that is ambitious, and lashes out in all sorts of directions. There is is the current CEO or Mirando – Lucy (Tilda Swinton), who wants the world of love Mirando, and is conscious of its image, and the former CEO Nancy (also Swinton) who doesn’t much care for anything but money. The “face” of Mirando is TV star Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, who is nothing else, certainly made some choices with his performance) – one of those nature TV stars who was big when the super pig project launched, not so much anymore. There is also an animal rights group – led by Jay (Paul Dano), whose utter calmness distracts from some rather violent tactics. There is a ton of action, and heartache – all leading to a scene at a factory farm which is only a quasi-happy ending – it’s still utterly horrifying, saddening and depressing.
There is a lot going on in Okja. Like Snowpiercer, the film is an international co-production – this one for Netflix, with a mixture of cast between Korean and English speakers. Unlike Snowpiercer though, this film integrates that into the story – it is a story of cultural differences and language barriers – with Steven Yeun as K, a member of that animal rights group, being a kind of bridge (and showing how smart he is in the process – not limiting himself to what he could get in American films, a strategy starts served him even better in Lee Chang-dong’s masterpiece Burning). Bong does waste any of that money either – the special effects in the film are brilliant, and Okja is one of the most memorable, most lovable and best looking all CGI characters you will see in a film. He also shows, as he did in The Host and Snowpiercer, just how great he is at staging action sequences. Perhaps starting out with a special effects movie like The Host was good for Bong in the long term – that was fairly low-budget by blockbuster standards, and forced Bong to be smart in how he deployed special effects. He pulls some of the same neat tricks off here – with lots going on in the background.
The cast is pretty great as well. Young Seo-hyun Ahn anchors the film with an earnest, emotional performance that breaks your heart. Because she is such a strong center – it allows the likes of Swinton, Dano and especially Gyllenhaal to fly off the rails at times, going completely over-the-top, often brilliantly. I love it when Swinton lets her freak flag fly – and she gets to do that in two different roles in this film. I’m still entirely sure what the hell Gyllenhaal was doing in this film – but I think I loved it.
Okja is a film that does lash out in many different directions – at corporate greed, at factory farming, even at that animal rights group, which isn’t as pure as they like to pretend it is. It is a film that can be a heartwarming E.T.-like story one minute, an action movie the next, a satire the next, and a message movie right after. Yes, it is still is kind of a mess in that regards – but it’s a glorious mess, with Bong presiding over the entire thing, and knowing precisely what he is doing.

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