Director: Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay: Bong Joon-ho, Jon Ronson
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Ahn Seo-hyun, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo-shik, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
Runtime: 120 Minutes
Bong Joon-ho’s specialised traits as a filmmaker are a mixture of absurdist modern fables across genres while throwing a bat around to strike home the importance of specific sociopolitical subject matters. From its takedown of home-grown and foreign policies and environmental contamination in The Host to the broader spectrum of class warfare and segregation in Snowpiercer, his broad emotional attitudes are usually held together through his technical ability and curiously engaging tonal shifts.
Okja is a similar case, where the subject matter is the industrial farming of livestock and the indifference of corporations to the sanctity of animal life and welfare. Positioned initially as a children’s fantasy story in the vein of Studio Ghibli, the story of a young girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her massive genetically engineered super pig, Okja, slowly morphs into a darkly satirical – and occasionally horrifying – depiction of the false corporate faces of industries and the scatological approaches of activism in the 21st century.
Though Bong Joon-ho’s committed approaches to storytelling can be loose and unreserved, the best features of Okja are held together by the bond that is formed between Okja and Mija. Okja is intentionally designed to be just about the cutest animal possible to look at, and the CGI used to bring the super pig to life is convincing, and Mija comes across as the only real person in this world of near cartoon characters who emerge from the urban cities to take Okja from her. You’re with her every step of the way and desperately just want to see them escape the fate that Okja was sadly born to fulfill as a new eco-friendly food resource, and Seo-hyun’s high-strung performance is what keeps her so appealing in the lead.
Jon Ronson’s contributions to the screenplay develop the side characters more than Joon-ho would probably allow alone, and although surfing close to the surface of caricature at times they are a wild bunch to be around. Tilda Swinton plays both roles of the Mirando sisters to a high level but pitches them both wonderfully with childish eccentricity and cruelty. Among the supporting cast of Lily Collins and Steven Yeun, Paul Dano is perfectly cast as the poised leader of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) whose dedication to the cause has allowed the actions of some of his confused his fellow members to go unmonitored. Jake Gyllenhaal is a difficult one to handle as a celebrated zoologist, whose disturbing inclinations and weirdness leans into the films crippling issue of tone.
As with many of Joon-ho’s films, there are times where moments that could have been played straight for dramatic effect come across as confused and senseless in order to earn an impulsive reaction from the audience at given times. It’s a gamble that only occasionally pays off but leaves stretches of the second act unfocused as to its actual gain, before the bleak blow of the final act sticks our heads into the abattoir in a gut-wrenching and difficult to watch fashion.
Given the subject matter that it’s taking on board, Okja is a lively joy, for the most part, thanks to Joon-ho’s direction of set-pieces and exchanges through a vibrant array of images and locations. It hits home where it counts even with the silliness of its less controlled moments, with a core relationship between a girl and her pet that’s very sweet and will resonate with many people.