“Okja”: Occasionally obnoxious, mostly provocative

D: Bong Joon-Ho
S: Ahn Seo-Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal
121 minutes
RATING: Ratings copy 5

South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s journey to this year’s Cannes Film Festival was anything but smooth. Just ask any audience member who booed his latest film when the Netflix logo appeared onscreen. Their main beef – or should I say pork (?) – is that it will never be released in French cinemas, or any cinema outside the US, UK, and Korea, for that matter. Instead, it will be largely available online, as part of Netflix’s original line-up.

Uproar escalated when a glitch caused the film to be screened in the incorrect aspect ratio, forcing organizers to start the movie all over. The incident prompted the committee to ban streaming-only entries in future festivals altogether. Furthermore, it speaks volumes of how purists feel about the streaming phenomenon, thus far. Are laptop screens finally replacing the cineplex? It’s too early to say. But one thing’s for sure: with all these emerging platforms, there’s no stopping anyone with a story to tell.

Still, the debate shouldn’t deduct from the film’s merits. Okja picks up vigorously from Bong’s previous eco-skewed efforts, namely, The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013). This time, Bong delivers a jab at two-faced consumerism under the guise of a fractured fable. Together with Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Erik-Jan de Boer (Life of Pi) and cinematographer Darius Khondji, he creates the perfect, eye-popping scenery for this odd adventure. Too bad very few get to appreciate it on the big screen.

The film opens in 2007 with Lucy Mirando (Ever-brilliant Tilda Swinton) succeeding the CEO mantle of the Mirando Corporation from her notorious kin. She swears she’s nothing like them, but that doesn’t make her less evil. In her speech, she announces the creation of super-pigs, a genetically-modified breed of swine so huge (think quadripedal manatee with elephant skin and hippopotamus built), their meat could quell world hunger. But in the process of introducing these gentle giants to the world, she also plans to subject them to cruel lab tests and, eventually, slaughter them into sellable food products. “They have to taste fucking good“, she mandates, with The Isley BrothersHarvest for the World aptly blasting in the background.

Fast forward 10 years later, we meet a Korean girl named Mija, played with precocious tenacity by 13-year-old Ahn Seo-Hyun, who had kept one of the behemoths as her pet. Apart from her grandfather, Okja, as Mija named her hog, is her only family. That’s why she’s surprised to learn that Okja is actually one of 26 super-pigs sent by Mirando to different parts of the world as part of a pig-raising contest. When renowned TV vet Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal lacking restraint and direction) arrives to claim Okja as the winner, Mija becomes upset.

What follows is a chaotic pig chase in an effort to take Okja back home to the mountains. And yes, they smash into things. Along the way, Mija also meets a group of animal rights mercenaries led by Jay (an over-the-top Paul Dano), who also wish to save Okja from certain doom, but with shadier intentions.

Okja’s no kiddie movie, even if it bears elements of Spielberg-meets-Studio Ghibli family fare. The script co-written by British author Jon Ronson, while snappy, is peppered with way too many F-bombs and sequences too violent for tiny tots to ingest. Most of the time, it becomes way too loud. What keeps this bleak circus from falling apart, really, is Swinton, who serves double duty as creepy, capitalist Cruela de Vil Lucy, and her more nefarious, iron-willed twin Nancy. Additional props to Giancarlo Esposito as Lucy’s enigmatic right hand and Steven Yuen as the vigilante group’s resident translator.

Overall, the film still manages to convey its message amidst the hullabaloo. It‘s not necessarily vegan propaganda, but it does make us wonder: What really goes into the food we eat? It’s this type of thought-provoking dogma which makes Okja, despite its occasional obnoxiousness, an acquired taste.

Okja is now available for streaming on Netflix.


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