About a decade and a half ago in South Korea, a young director made waves with a movie that had peoples’ tongues wagging. It wasn’t his first movie, but it was certainly the movie that made the rest of the world first take notice of his immense talent. The film – a dramatic thriller based on the true life, unsolved serial murder case involving the deaths of ten women between 1986 and 1991 in the Hwaseong area of South Korea – was a critical and financial hit in its homeland and won a slew of awards both at home and abroad. The name of that movie was “Memories of Murder”, and its director was Bong Joon Ho.
I happened to be in Korea at the time, and although I wasn’t able to see the movie in theaters because of the language barrier, I immediately sought it out once it arrived on DVD with English subtitles. I do like a good, dark thriller, and was really looking forward to this one. I was familiar with the murder case it was based on, and many friends had recommended it, so imagine my surprise when I found that the film was as funny as it was dark. I think I can honestly say I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. That mixture of serious subject matter laced with humor really sang to me, and becomes apparent again in his later hit “The Host”, another movie I enjoyed immensely. This tonal balancing act of light and dark is not an easy feat to pull off, but Bong has shown himself to be a master of it. And I lap it up every time.
Which now brings us to his latest tonal-twister. “Okja” tells the story of Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), a young orphan girl who lives on an isolated farm atop a mountain in South Korea with her grandfather (Byun Heebong) and a humongous pig named Okja. Actually, Okja isn’t just humongous, she’s a super-pig. And what exactly makes this particular pig so super? Well, ten years before, Okja was one of twenty six super-piglets belonging to a new species of swine that had been discovered by the Mirando Corporation, a giant in the food production industry. It is the dream of the company’s CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), that these unique pigs become a new food source for the world’s ever-growing population. In an effort to turn the populace onto this new form of protein, the piglets were sent to various farms all over the world to be raised as part of a competition to see which super-pig would turn out to be the best; and by best they mean, of course, the yummiest. Now that the ten years are up, and Okja has been declared the winner, Mija’s best and only friend is whisked away to New York without the young girl’s knowledge by the company’s neurotic spokesperson/celebrity zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal). When she finds out that she’s been duped, and Okja may be destined for the kitchen table, Mija hits the road on her own to track down Okja and hopefully return her to the only home she has ever known.
What can I say? With “Memories of Murder”, “The Host”, “Snowpiercer”, and now “Okja”, Bong Joon Ho has cemented himself as one of my favorite directors working today. I love this movie. It is right up my alley with its special mix of zaniness and dark matters. Especially in today’s marketplace, where we are under constant barrage from remakes, sequels, and nostalgic money-grabs, “Okja” is a welcome breath of fresh air. This movie pulled me in so many different directions with its humor, action, horror, and overall looniness, and I loved every violent tug. That said, with all the pulling, I never lost sight of what lay at its core: the love story between a young girl and her only friend. Sure, it’s a pig. But as everyone in the film keeps saying, it is one hell of a pig.
As I said above, this movie is a tonal-twister, and I ain’t kidding. And while I see this as being one of the movie’s strengths, I think many will condemn it for just that reason. I can already hear the cries of, “The tone is all over the place”. It is a familiar one in film criticism, and one I have used myself from time to time. Yes, the tone of “Okja” does change more than once. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. As long as the director knows what he/she’s doing, things should go smoothly, and Bong Joon Ho never loses his grip on the reins. It can be a very tricky balancing act for sure, but he never falters. That is why he is the respected filmmaker he is today, one of my favorites, and why I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us down the road.
And great filmmakers are good at something else as well. They attract great talent, and there’s no shortage here. Tilda Swinton is smarmy, conniving, and clueless in all the best ways as the CEO with daddy issues, Lucy Mirando. Swinton is one of those actresses who is able to seize your attention with just her riveting appearance alone, but here she throws herself into the fray with gusto, obviously relishing the lunacy she is orchestrating. She is always a joy to watch. Paul Dano continues to trip the fringes of Hollywood with a somewhat restrained performance as Jay, the leader of ALF (Animal Liberation Front). He’s always a trusted performer, and though I’m not always taken with him, he does a good job here as the animal activist whose heart is in the right place, even if his plans are not always fully thought out. And when I say restrained, I don’t mean that in a bad way. It is the nature of the character Jay, and he pulls it off beautifully. A lesser actor would have made the character stilted and boring. Dano’s Jay always commands attention, just like he’s supposed to. “The Walking Dead’ favorite Steven Yeun appears alongside Dano as an ALF member/translator, and while he doesn’t really bring anything extraordinary to the role, he does a fine job as the conflicted K, a man trapped between doing what he thinks is right and what actually is…..or is it? Maybe he figures it out. I’m not telling.
Now let’s talk about the star of the show. Although she is only thirteen years old, Seo-Hyun Ahn has the weight of this film placed solely on her slight shoulders. She is the heart of this piece, she is the one we identify with throughout the movie, and she is the one who has to guide us through all of the lunacy, drama, and hijinks. That’s a lot of responsibility for one so young, especially when surrounded by a number of bonafide Hollywood heavyweights. There’s no need to fear though, as she does a remarkable job for someone her age and is the anchor that keeps the madness around her from flying off in all directions. No matter how heated the action gets, no matter how bleak the future looks, no matter how crazy the characters behave, there is always Mija with her blinders on showing us the way. The world is going crazy all around her, but she is one hundred percent focused on her goal: that’s her friend they’re screwing with, and she’s not having any of it. And through it all, we never leave her side. And you’d better brace yourself, because it’s one hell of a trip.
And, of course, we have to address the pig in the room. Though her proportions seem more designed for hand drawn animation than real life, the special effects folks have created a creature that will soon make you forget that it is, in reality, a computer creation. Okja is as big a part of this movie as any of her human co-stars. She will dazzle you, have you cheering for her, crying for her, and, most importantly, caring for her. She has more life in her than many flesh and blood performers in other movies these days. She will not be soon forgotten, and she shouldn’t be.
Now, of course, no one or nothing is perfect, so as much as I love “Okja”, I do have to touch on some of the negatives. There aren’t many, but there a couple. Let’s start with the biggest. You probably noticed that I haven’t said much about Jake Gyllenhaal beyond the role he plays. Well, that’s because of all the performers in this, he’s the only one who took his part too far. What do I mean exactly? Well, a good part of this movie is farcical, and everyone in the movie realizes that and works with it, tempering their performance to match the shifting tone. Everyone, that is, except Gyllenhaal. He is over-the-top, whacked out of his mind crazy from beginning to end and never lets up for a second. It’s too much and really was in need of some reeling in. I think I can see what he was going for. Many viewers – especially considering the Asian roots of the story – will see that his character resembles the clichéd, crazy old/middle-aged man who often pops up in anime running about with arms swinging and eyes bugging out, screaming more than speaking. I don’t know if that is what Gyllenhaal was going for, but it’s what popped into my mind every time he appeared on screen. And thank God this is on Netflix and there were subtitles available, because a lot of people are going to need them when he starts rambling at a mile a minute.
The other problems in this are also related to the performers, but not their performances. Simply put, a lot of the minor characters were not given enough to grow their characters, and I regret not having that. I would have liked to learn more about some of these characters, especially the other members of ALF, in particular Devon Bostick as Silver. He had some brief, funny moments as the most extreme member of ALF that I would have loved to have seen more of. And I didn’t even realize Lily Collins was Red until I started on this review. She doesn’t end up with whole lot to do, and I can barely remember her just a day later. That’s too bad. This short shrifting spreads beyond ALF to other characters, and though the film could have benefited from their fleshing out, it doesn’t damage the film to any large extent. It just would have been the cherry on the top of a very delicious pie.
Before finishing up I just want to add a warning. As cute as this movie may seem in promotional material, it is a very adult tale. The language gets pretty raw and there are some very horrifying/emotional situations in the latter parts of the film. Hell, even if you’re an adult, and especially an animal lover, you’d better brace yourself. “Okja” goes to some pretty dark places. And have the Kleenex ready as well, I reckon you’ll be needing it. I sure did. This movie contains one of the biggest emotional gut-punches I’ve received in years. Powerful, powerful stuff. And as much as I’m warning you about seeing it, I’m also urging you to see it. I think, as disturbing as it gets, it is a unique film with an important message that says a lot about us as a society. It deserves to be seen.
In the end, if you’re starving for something thought-provoking, shocking, and is good for some laughs and thrills, “Okja” may be just the ticket you’re looking for. It is a work of wonder that oozes originality; a fractured fairy-tale that leads us on a chase through a world that alternates between fantastical whimsy, satirical slapstick, and terrifying reality.
Just make sure you limit the snacks to popcorn and candy. Trust me, you do not want to be eating a ham sandwich while watching this.
Starring Seo-Hyun Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal
Written by Bong Joon Ho
Directed by Bong Joon Ho