Okja! Okja! People shout that name a lot through the movie. It’s the name of this giant adorable hippo looking animal that everyone seem so jazzed about. The Mirando Corporation, headed by Tilda Swinton’s Lucy (again playing the sorta faintly comic caricature of evil that Bong Joon-ho loves her as), calls the species the superpig in some 2007 Innocent Smoothies branding exercise and sends twenty six around the world to be raised by local, free-range farmers to determine the best way to raise the things.
Ten years in the experiment comes to a close; Okja who ranks somewhere around the Pete’s Dragon, Toothless level on the cutieness scale is basically being raised by this 14 year old girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). To be fair, the company should never have trusted the her grandfather Heebong (Byun Hee-bong) in the first place cos whenever he shows up in a Bong joint he’s totally the sketchiest most useless old dude around, love him so much. You know, ten years in the products about to launch and the company need to reclaim their investment.
They didn’t count though, on the power and motivation a fourteen year old can summon forth in order to save their dope, enormous, extremely intelligent animal friend. Actually they probably did, they just weren’t expecting a dude as useless and pathetic as Heebong to be her carer. I mean, who’d leave a young girl with this thing? If it weren’t a puppy dog it’d probably be monstrous.
We also got two other parties poking their noses in at the edges here. Jake Gyllenhaal is this animal documentarian and zoologist studying and promoting the animals on behalf of the company. He’s way too much in this film. Where Swinton plays this hyper exaggerated friendly businesswoman persona it falls down just on the side of believability. Dr. Johnny Wilcox is overboard.
The character’s supposed to be this drug-addled sellout pulling himself through whatever shitty contract work will pay his habits, but it’s the effort and the energy and the super obvious queer affectations he’s doing. Credit to Gyllenhaal for trying something new, but there’s no place for us to get into the dude, when he’s gotta start taking on some drama it’s more than the character can bear.
Now, while his performance is rooted in some pretty deep queer-phobia (which thankfully South Korea seems to be starting to get over) we do have some decent queer representation in the fourth faction: the Animal Liberation Front. Led by Paul Dano they seem to be some punk anarchist, slightly more ecoterrorist version of PETA (are they the douchebag ones? Whichever ones are the douchebag ones.) and they wanna use Okja in their plans to expose how Mirando are treating the beasts. Two of them here, Blond and Silver are pretty clearly coded gay, I mean they don’t do anything because South Korea, but, you know, it’s there.
We got these four teams then, and after this super lush prologue in the mountains, which honestly don’t need to be the fifteen minutes it is, we spend the rest of the time watching them form and break their alliances, shuttling poor Okja between them as they do so. It efficient stuff and with a screenplay credited to Bong and Jon Ronson the film whips along with an easygoing passion. There’s bits that feel like the gang comedy bits of Ronson’s Frank, and the scope of the action scenes has risen alongside the budgets that Bong has found himself access to over his career.
Helps that his actors be so good at articulation. Swinton, Dano, Hee-bong and Gyllenhaal all get their moments opposite Seo-hyun, their opportunities to get the monologues out, and with the exception of the latter they all manage to work and build off this young actor’s performance. They all manage to express the film’s message.
Cos he’s been making message movies for a while, so given his disregard for tone and traditional notions of dramatic resolution they usually end up in weird places. Check how many out there hating on the end of Snowpiercer. This one be all about late capitalism, it about saving the world, it about globalism (but not in the anti-semetic sense, seriously) verses agrarianism, it about how we want to appear and how we do and if we should care and selfishness and selflessness and duty.
And, where Snowpiercer come to a pretty clear and deliberate conclusion, I think it might be Ronson’s hand on this one that steers the screenplay away from it. Finding a place that problematizes and challenges the philosophies of our heroes and villains. A note that questions the place of privilege and complacency that the viewer is probably watching from.
It’s all cemented by the weirdness. I’m thinking, if Bong were to tackle The Book of Henry he might even have been able to make that work. His manipulation of tone, especially in terms of these sudden and jarring switches in mood is like second to none. It’s amazing, his films are so generous and full of reality. Even when they weird and offbeat, and when Gyllenhaal onscreen being totally extra, there’s something to them. I loved this joint.
Okja is currently available to stream on Netflix