Film Review: Okja (2017)

Director: Bong Joon Ho

Writer: Bong Joon Ho & Jon Ronson

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun

Synopsis: Mija (An Seo Hyun) has lived all her life with Okja – a so-called ‘Super Pig’ – as her best friend in the mountains. When the Mirando corporation declares Okja the winner of the best Super Pig competition, Mija travels to America to try and rescue her friend from the slaughterhouse.

As the writer-director of Snowpiercer, you can only expect something unique and extraordinary from Bong Joon Ho. And “unique” is certainly a good way of describing Okja.

In the mountains of South Korea, we find young Mija playing with a giant “Super Pig” – a cute, delightful creature that looks part pig, dog and hippo – a “pet” she has grown up with over the years. So far, so delightful. Watching Mija enjoying her relationship with her pet and friend (a stunningly created creature that really feels very much alive), you can’t help but immediately feel charmed by the film.

Things turn dark when employees of the Mirando corporation come to take Okja away – apparently to show him off as part of a Super Pig competition announced by Lucy Mirando (Swinton) 10 years previously. However, it soon transpires that the competition is a front to endear the world to these wonderful (and “f***ing delicious”, according to Swinton) creatures, to cover up the fact that they’re in fact genetic modified animals.

This is where things turn truly bizarre.

Tonally, this film doesn’t seem to know where it wants to sit. The parts with Mija and Okja in the mountains feel like charming, family-friendly fare, something you’d be more than happy to sit and watch with your young children. But once members of ALF (Animal Liberation Front) get involved, there’s come quite dark violence and some strong language (admittedly, Swinton does swear from the start). And that’s before mentioning Jake Gyllenhaal in his strangest performance to date as the self-proclaimed animal love, and on-the-verge of being washed-up television host Johnny Wilcox, whom I have heard described (quite rightly) as a cross between Steve Irwin and Timmy Mallett. Gyllenhaal felt like he had been dropped in from an entirely different movie, and took a good deal of getting used to. However, bizarrely, that wasn’t necessarily to the detriment of the movie: things are so strange and tonally so mixed up that he felt like just another surreal element in the increasingly bizarre tale. Another tragic figure amongst a myriad of tragic figures.

A film essentially about corporate greed – profits over people (or, in this case, animals) – this is one of the strangest and sweetest films I have seen in quite some time. Highly enjoyable and also very moving, especially in the final 20 minutes or so.

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