***** SPOILERS AHEAD *****
Looking through acclaimed Korean film director Bong Joon-Ho's filmography, you'll notice he is a filmmaker who's capable of juggling a number of tonally-contrasting themes with some finely-crafted satire on current political issues and grounded human stories. 2006'sThe Host saw the director mash a monster flick with a strong message about environmental pollution, while 2013's Snowpiercer is an unabashed critique on climate change disguised as an intense sci-fi thriller (that happened to also star Captain America).
For his latest film, Okja, Joon-ho once again proves that he is one of the best at telling a simple heartfelt human story while offering up a critique on a real-world issue (corporate greed and the genetically-modified food industry in this case), even if the results are a bit bumpier this time around compared to his previous efforts.
In a not-too-distant future where the need for genetically modified food is required, agri-business titan Mirando Corporation, lead by glossy and neurotic CEO Lucy Mirando (a wonderfully hammed up Tilda Swinton), embarks on a decade-long experiment (and positive PR move) where 26 genetically-created "superpigs" are distributed to farmers around the world to be raised in sustainable, free-range conditions. Once the 10 years is up, all the superpigs are recollected for a kind of livestock contest, hosted by the excessively weird and obviously-a-parody of all eccentric TV personalities, Dr. Johnny (a not-so-wonderfully hammed up Jake Gyllenhaal).
One of these pigs, the titular Okja, is delivered to the mountains to be raised by 14-year-old orphan Mija (a brilliant Ahn Seo-Hyun) and her grandpa Hee-Bong (Byun Hee-Bong). But as the audience quickly learns, this experiment is nothing but a cover and the superpigs - including poor Okja - will in the end be factory-farmed like their non-super counterparts.
Okja's two different storylines are powerful statements within their own right, but never quite blend together to form a coherent narrative. On one hand, the film is an intensely dark and heavy-handed satire on corporate capitalism and animal exploitation. There are moments of intense violence involving the vigilante activist (and ironically pacifist) group called Animal Liberation Front, led by the idealistic yet ethically-challenged Jay (Paul Dano), as they do some morally questionable things in the name of liberating Okja and all the superpigs. There are also a number of cruel and nightmarish scenes where Okja is experimented on, including one particularly gut-wrenching forced breeding scene that will test one's limits. Having said that, there are moments of levity in the form of some creatively staged action set-pieces, particularly the fantastic truck chase in Seoul that starts in a corporate office and ends in a frantic foot chase in a shopping mall. Needless to say, this side of the story is a cynical look at corporate capitalism, where competing characters all have conflicting motivations and all of them attempt to use Okja as a way to push and justify their own self-interested agendas.
Okja is also a sweet coming-of-age story about Mija and her giant superpig. In contrast to how the various other parties use Okja for their own nefarious purposes, Mija's relationship to the superpig is presented as something that's pure and innocent. There's an air of bitter-sweetness when watching the tender scenes featuring Mija and Okja; Bong convincingly depicts the strong bond between the two characters (a credit to Ahn Seo-Hyun's performance and the film's special effects department) but there's always the feeling in the back of everyone's mind that this loving, innocent relationship will be interrupted in the darkest of ways. Unsurprisingly, this innocence is shattered when Okja is forcibly reclaimed by the Miranda Corporation, and Mija embarks on a dangerous journey to save her one and only friend.
Taken as a whole, Okja is a weird clash of sensibilities that somehow almost work, which is a testament to Bong's skills as filmmaker. Taken as separate parts, the film is brilliant. There are Studio Ghibli-esque moments between Mija and her genetically-engineered best friend, there are some bittersweet moments (particularly towards the end) that highlight what Mija is willing to do to get her friend back, and there are number of brutal moments that put forth a sharp critique on everything that's wrong with corporations who focus on nothing but their bottom line.
The film may be tonally scattered and the satire never quite gels with the sentimental Mija character arc, but Okja manages to pull through from the strength of Bong's filmmaking talent. In the most fitting of ways, nothing encompasses the film better than Okja herself: a clunky hybrid animal that may not win any beauty contests, but is nonetheless an impressive statement on something that warrants our attention.
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