Review: Okja

Distributor: Netflix
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Writers: Bong Joon Ho & Jon Ronson
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito, and Lily Collins.
Composer: Jaeil Jung
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi
Rating: Due to being an internet release, Okja has not been classified in the USA. However, in order to obtain some sort of idea of the content, according to IMDB it was rated NC16 in Singapore, 12 in South Korea, 15 in the UK, and MA15+ in Australia.
Bong Joon Ho’s previous films, Snowpiercer and The Host, have been critically acclaimed cultural hits, renowned for boldly infusing well-worn genres with splashes of satire, creating something original yet offbeat. As the South Korean director’s career quickly moves into the international spotlight, there has been much buzz for his latest film, Okja, though it is not immune from controversy. At Cannes, it was famously booed due to its ties with Netflix, with many in the field believing that the festival should only be reserved for theatrical releases. The heavy criticism resulted in festival organizers announcing that 2017 will be the last year internet-streaming releases will be allowed for submission, though this isn’t the debate Hong Joon Ho wished to have surrounding Okja.
The director, along with cast member Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead fame, were present to personally introduce the film at the Sydney Film Festival. In his short speech, Bong Joon Ho revealed that Okja was inspired by pigs. “Whenever we think about pigs, we always associate it with food products, such as jerky, sausages, or ham, and also pork cutlets! But actually [the] pig is very beautiful animal… very smart, and also introverted.” This duplicitous view is explored heavily in the film. To hear the full introduction with Bong Joon Ho and Steven Yeun (horribly recorded by yours truly) play the audio file below.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: An animal rights group frequently clashes with the authorities. Protesters are clubbed across the face and body. There are many skirmishes in public places. People are shown to be bleeding from their injuries. One character is hit and kicked to the ground. There is no gun violence, though tranquilizers are shot but deflected.
Okja’s story revolves around the meat industry. There is a lot of cruelty to a fictional species, and the film depicts these animals suffering from electrical shocks, procedures that cause pain, confined living spaces, and are shot before being carved up to be served for consumption. The production line of a meat processing plant is shown, with various carcasses swinging from the ceiling; the sequence contains graphic images that may be too scary for younger viewers.
Language/Crude Humor: Okja is certainly trigger-happy with its delivery of the f-bomb. It is both spoken in English and written in the subtitles. God’s name is used in vain twice, along with some of the lighter swears such as d*mmit and h*ll.
Spiritual Content: None.
Sexual Content: There is fictional animal on animal sex, which is depicted as unwanted by the female of the species.
Drug/Alcohol References: One character consumes an intoxicating liquid to excess, lowering his inhibitions and behaving in a way that is alarmingly cruel. Fictional animals are drugged.
Other Negative Content: The animal rights group featured in the movie wear balaclavas, reminiscent of terrorists, though they frequently claim they are a peaceful movement. A number of characters appear to be completely devoid of compassion. There are a number of action sequences that contain movements where, if performed in real life, would cause serious injury, though this film merely tries to suspend disbelief. There are a number of times when people steal or destroy company property. This type of crime is portrayed in a positive light.
Positive Content: Okja has a lot to say regarding the treatment of animals. Okja, which is the name given to the superpig, is an intelligent creature that develops a strong bond with a little girl. It’s a caring relationship that is based on mutual trust and respect. The willingness to uphold those values, and to not resort to viewing the animal as just another commodity, is the main driving force behind a lot of the story’s action.

Review

As though to rival Disney’s live action fairy tales, Okja is a delightful film that centers on the friendship between a prepubescent South Korean girl and a genetically modified super pig. ‘Okja’, the titular creature in question, looks similar to a hippopotamus, with a personality like a dog, and as intelligent as Elliot from Pete’s Dragon, thereby making a bulky but loveable addition to the friendly monster sub-genre.
Yet as director, Bong Joon Ho, commented in his introductory speech at the Sydney Film Festival screening, Okja isn’t just about the colossal super pig. While the naïve friendship might encapsulate the soul of the story, Okja is a hard-hitting violent film packed with action. This movie is essentially Babe for adults. Or at least that’s what the film aimed to be.
It is at this point where Bong Joon Ho needs to be commended for having the audacity to attempt such an international endeavor. Featuring some parallels with King Kong, Okja is truly an East meets West kind of affair, ranging from the wild rainforests of South Korea, to the bustling, consumeristic streets of New York City. The director firmly straddles both the American and overseas market, casting familiar faces all around, including a reunion of sorts with many of The Hosts’ South Korean actors. Indeed, this means that Okja features subtitles, though it may be worth tolerating them, given that the film is fairly evenly split between Korean and English.
More impressive is the concept of taking the central, innocent ideas found in children’s monster movies of yesteryear (The Water Horse, My Neighbor Totoro, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), and thrusting them in satirical juxtaposition to the chaos of business marketing schemes. Tilda Swinton brilliantly plays the antagonistic yet conscientious owner of the Mirando Corporation, tasked with the unenviable job of convincing the public to not only adore genetically modified animals, but also to consume them. Family squabbles and interference from animal liberation groups only contribute to her stress levels.
Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, and Lily Collins also provide entertaining performances as animal rights campaigners. Radical yet pacifist, they claim peaceful motivations though they frequently commit crimes, cause destruction, and are arguably ineffectual in promoting any kind of change for the greater good. The only one with the purest motivation is the little girl, Mija–wonderfully played by Seo-Hyun Ahn–who only wants to see her beloved pet returned home, despite being schooled by her grandfather for her naiveté.
Though this is where the praises for the film end. The movie’s message can be shrunk down to an overtly simplistic “meat is murder” mantra. This is similar to how animal control officers are always portrayed as inherently evil in dog stories despite providing a valuable service to the community in real life. In Okja, the entire culture behind eating meat is demonized even though the debate is incredibly more nuanced than what is presented.
The worst offender is Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Dr. Johnny Wilcox; a failing animal-loving celebrity who has teamed up with the Mirando Corporation to revitalize his career. At first he is a wonderful, quirky contrast to straight-faced Mija, though it doesn’t take long for him to merely be a caricature. While Gyllenhaal normally produces Oscar-worthy performances, this time he seems to be acting in his own film, with a melodramatic style that may have suited China’s Monster Hunt, but seems tonally out of place in a movie aimed for Western adult audiences. As shallow as a villain from Batman Forever, in his most irritating scene, Gyllenhaal performs a weepy soliloquy detailing his nefarious motivations, all the while causing nonsensical harm to one of the film’s heroes. It’s not drama or angst, it’s wangst, with the entire sequence reminiscent of a poorly written torture porn fanfic.
Bong Joon Ho offers no solutions to the problems he raises in this movie. There is a vegan character, yet that individual is portrayed in a comedic role, as though the audience was never meant to take their approach to life seriously. With the audience’s heart strings pulled with Okja’s constant displays of emotional intelligence (unlike any actual animal on earth), this film seems to only be interested in delivering a guilt trip. This would be fine if it were targeted towards children, though adults may see right through the flimsy manipulations, desiring more of a gray, nuanced message, as Princess Mononoke achieved.
It’s all too simple for adults, and Okja is way too violent for kids (unless you wish to traumatize them into staving off meat). Relishing the freedom of a Netflix release, screenwriter Jon Ronson felt compelled to delightfully drop as many f-bombs as possible, as though he was writing for Samuel L. Jackson in a Vietnam War action extravaganza. This leaves Okja feeling tonally confused, flipping from emotionally grounded moments innocently showing the power of friendship, to dark-edged, offbeat brutality. Though the action sequences are a sight to behold, with many wonderful near misses and complete pandemonium.
Despite the flaws in its execution, Okja is an enjoyable watch. It’s also easily accessible, though considering the high quality of Okja’s CGI, it’s a real shame that it will mainly be viewed only on the small screen. An extraordinarily talented crew has been assembled for the visual effects, and with an enviable list of past credentials, only the budget limited their expertise. A vision of this scope does deserve the silver screen, though sadly if it was originally intended as a theatrical release, due to Okja’s daring genre blend, it would never have been funded in the first place. If you are in the mood to try something a little bit different and want to give Okja a chance, be sure to stick around to the very end, as there’s a post-credit scene.

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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