Film review: Okja — It’s really rather disappointing

by Philip Gowman on 7 July, 2017

in Bong Joon-ho, Film reviews and comment

Okja poster

“Our super-pigs will not only be big and beautiful; they will also leave a minimal footprint on the environment, consume less feed, and produce less [sic] excretions.”

Don’t you just hate it when you’re really looking forward to a movie, really hoping and expecting to enjoy it, and it turns out to be a big fat irritation? That’s Okja.

I exclude from this judgement the super-pig herself: a nicely rendered, good-looking beast. But, but, but… This of course is a movie, and you have to suspend a lot of disbelief, but Okja really is rather light on her feet for a creature that size (she skitters round that Seoul shopping mall like an overgrown puppy even though she should weigh as much as several hippos), blessed with remarkable intelligence and with an indestructibility that enables her to survive unscathed an early incident which should have reduced her to a pile of sausage meat. And how does a beast grow to that size eating nothing but a handful of persimmons every day?

Okja and Mija

Okja and Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun)

Still, Okja and the farm girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) are just about the only likeable characters in the movie. From the grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) who lies to her that he has secured Okja’s future in the mountains and forests of Korea, to the hideous array of cartoon-like characters who intrude upon their world from the outside, it’s a harsh, brash world that faces Mija as she seeks to protect her friend.

Okja - Wilcox

Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr Johnny Wilcox

The first and biggest irritant among these outsiders is Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, an in-your-face TV wildlife presenter called Johnny Wilcox who caters for the lowest common denominator. He crawls up the mountainside to reach the farm where Okja lives, arriving hot, sweaty, and in desperate need of water, accompanied by flunkies from the PR department of the Mirando organisation, including the almost as equally irritating Jennifer, a knock-kneed female stooge played by Shirley Henderson.

He grabs the nearest liquid to hand and swigs it back: a bottle of soju. Such is the shock of seeing these crass characters burst on to the stage, shattering the rural idyll that opens the film, that the audience now half expects Wilcox to fall over blind drunk. Thankfully the film does not stoop that far into cartoon slapstick. Instead, Wilcox shoots a cringe-worthily shallow piece to camera before the scene ends.

Koja: Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando

Okja (the giant pig, rather than the movie) is the product of a more than decade-long experiment to produce meat with a low carbon footprint. To suspend disbelief again, I thought Kim Jong-il’s giant bunnies had forever debunked the myth that over-sized animals could be an efficient or green source of nourishment for human consumption. No matter. Maybe the message is just corporate spin: this is the grand scheme of the Mirando organisation, headed by the larger-than-life Cruella de Vil character played by Tilda Swinton, and nothing must get in the way of producing low-cost protein for the mass market, and that mass-market prefers not to know if production methods involve genetic modification or otherwise morally dubious practices.

If these giant pigs are meant to be green – one of their plus points is said to be their low excretions – Okja herself has not read the script: she has no hesitation in popping her poops into the crystal clear waters of the mountain rock pools where she frolics. Although her popgun sized defecations have a minor role to play later in the film, one feels that the scatological humour in these scenes is aimed squarely at the younger audience.

Okja: Animal Liberation Front

The Animal Liberation Front in action

The other main players in the plot are the activists from the Animal Liberation Front, whose hearts seem to be in the right place, but whose methods and ethics are subordinated to their aims of discrediting the Mirando Corporation. If, after watching the film once only, I have little to say about this group it’s because they don’t have the cartoon-like qualities of the hammed-up characters that inhabit the the movie courtesy of the Mirando Corporation, and they therefore stick in the mind less. Their role is to propel the enjoyable action scenes and also to pose some of the interesting ethical questions, but individually they are unmemorable.

Okja - Grandpa

Byun Hee-bong as Mija’s grandfather

Undoubtedly the film is paced well. It never feels slow, and rarely too rushed, though sometimes you feel there is a loose end here and there (the horrific scene featuring the attempted insemination by non artificial means was probably the darkest moment in the whole movie, and you wondered what was the ultimate outcome). And it’s nice to see Bong Joon-ho regular Byun Hee-bong (Barking Dogs, Memories of Murder, The Host) again; I just wish he’d been given more to do than say Aigoo a few times. And the action scenes are fun.

Yes, this movie is a disappointment. The over-the-top cartoon-like characters detract from any serious message the film might have, and at the film’s coda you begin to agree with the grandfather: Mija needs to go out and get a boyfriend or two rather than mooch around with a giant pig all day, no matter how cute she is. Those coming to Bong Joon-ho for the first time should explore his earlier work to enjoy more satisfying fare.

Bong Joon-ho (봉준호) Okja (옥자, 2017) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

Image credits: Netflix

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Facebook Feedback July 15, 2017 at 6:03 pm
  • Adriana: Watching the movie I felt treated a bit like a dumb kid ….an uncomfortable feeling
    7 July at 08:16
  • Philip: Yup. I felt like I needed to be into American teen comedies to enjoy this.
    8 July at 13:04
  • Bella: I think it was aimed at teens
    9 July at 22:04
  • Timothy: Your review hits the nail on the head. Couldn’t agree with you more. And will this movie make anyone become a vegetarian? I highly doubt it.
    15 July at 15:02

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