All images courtesy of Netflix
In a word, OKJA is bonkers. Sometimes it’s bonkers in a good way and other times, it serves too much crazy for its own good.
In Bong Joon Ho’s follow up to his acclaimed dystopian train saga Snowpiercer, he concocts a Spielbergian story about a young girl Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her pet super-pig Okja — but let me backtrack. Gentle like a puppy and massive like a hippopotamus-elephant hybrid, Okja is part of a larger experiment conducted by the family-owned multinational conglomerate Mirando Corporation run by the wildly eccentric, self-promoting brace-faced CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton). Okja was one of many genetically modified super-pigs sent to people all around the world when it was a little babe to be raised. Naturally, Mija became attached to the pig while raising it on their remote Korean farm. But when wacky wildlife TV personality Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), the celebrity face of the Mirando Corporation, is sent to bring Okja back to the states for corporate-steered experimentation and ultimately, slaughter, it doesn’t go over so well with Mija.
Armed with a fanny pack and her love for Okja, Mija sets off on a journey to bring her super-pig home. Along the way she has a run in with capitalists, consumers, and a group of idealistic environmentalists — all vying for the fate of Okja and her super-pig brethren. She eventually ends up in New York where she comes face to face with Lucy and is has to go above and beyond to save her beloved Okja.
As much as it parallels heartwarming child-meets-creature movies, Okja is definitely not E.T. It’s a sweet and strange tale that has relevant ideas but is overstuffed with eccentricities and tonal cocktails that make it exhausting and at times, frustrating to watch.
When it was announced that Bong Joon Ho was making a monster movie, my initial thought was, “Cool!” Based on the one-of-a-kind vision and social commentary he brought to Snowpiercer, it is expected that he would do wonderful, weird things with a Godzilla-type movie. But alas, Okja isn’t about a massive kaiju monster scaling buildings and destroying cities. It’s about a little girl and her pet pig — which is something I totally didn’t mind. I also didn’t mind that this was a parable steeped in environmental concerns, corporate greed, and the dirty world of genetically modified animals for mass consumption. It is clear that Bong had carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted with this story which would explain its clumpy mixture of weird stuff that says, “I know this is crazy, but you can figure it out.”
The film is stocked with stellar actors including Paul Dano as the leader of the gang of environmental activists that include Steven Yeun and Lilly Collins. And I’d be remiss not to mention the “is he or is he not shady” brilliance brought to the game by Giancarlo Esposito. But its newcomer An Seo Hyun who steals the show, grounding the movie, and giving heart and soul that the audience can connect to. She shines and I would have been fine with the movie solely about her. In fact, I would have rather seen a film just about her character and cuddly Okja.
Swinton, who worked with Bong in Snowpiercer, proves once again that she can play off-center characters — like we needed to be reminded of this. I live for Swinton, but we get it. She’s a great character actress, but this was overkill. It was over-overkill. It’s a campiness that didn’t mesh well with the film. It would have been a fantastic fit for another film, but in this case, it was just…odd. The same could be said about Gyllenhaal’s character. I don’t know what the hell he was doing with his nerdy, awkward, and frantic wildlife expert persona, but the performance was obnoxious.
Needless to say, Bong’s film is not straightforward at all. It combines an environmental thriller with social commentary with the aforementioned child-meets-creature narrative on top. It’s unapologetically unconventional and has clever satirical nuance that is stamped with Bong’s magic. Still, it feels like three separate movies. Even in the moments when it manages to come together, it still feels like an uneven story that’s a hard sell.
Rated: Not rated
Running time: 118 minutes
Dino watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
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Dino-Ray Ramos | Film Critic