Movie review: Okja

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Bong Joon-ho explores the confluence of corporate farming, moral conflict and true friendship in Okja. Photo courtesy of Netflix Bong Joon-ho explores the confluence of corporate farming, moral conflict and true friendship in Okja. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Bong Joon-ho is back once again with Okja, a parable that goes to stylistic extremes to make an existential argument, broadcasting the film’s central metaphor from the very first scene while being far more emotionally and politically trenchant than anticipated. Snowpiercer could have been a straightforward action/sci-fi yarn, but in his hands, it becomes a cautionary tale of the dangers of being right while the larger questions go unasked. With Okja, the story of a girl who befriends a creature intended for consumption rather than companionship, Bong seizes the opportunity to go beyond straightforward animal welfare to all of factory farming, the inheritance of unwanted traditions and the transparent attempts by mega-corporations to put on a friendly face while remaining exploitative.


Okja

R, 121 minutes
Available on demand


The film centers on the relationship between a young Korean girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and a so-called super pig named Okja. Super pigs are the creation of the Mirando Corporation under the auspices of CEO Lucy Mirando, who started the program to counteract the company’s bad image and ostensibly solve the issue of food shortage due to the world’s booming population. To help facilitate the PR recovery, farmers from around the world were selected to raise super pigs and compete in a pageant after 10 years, hosted by superstar TV zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal).

The trouble begins when Mija is coaxed into believing she would travel to New York with Okja, when in fact her super pig best friend is taken away while she is distracted by her grandfather. She daringly races from the Korean countryside to Seoul, the staging area before Okja is ultimately brought to New York. It is while Okja is in transit from Mirando HQ in Seoul that she encounters the Animal Liberation Front led by Jay (Paul Dano). They are an exceedingly polite band of not terrorists, who begin their rescue operation with pleasantries, requesting Okja’s escorts wear seatbelts before the chaos ensues. With the assistance of the ALF’s translator, K (Steven Yuen), Jay informs Mija of their plan to liberate Okja and all of the other super pigs in New York, that Mirando’s humane face is just a ploy to hide the horrific truth of the entire project.

Bong Joon-ho seizes the opportunity to go beyond straightforward animal welfare to all of factory farming, the inheritance of unwanted traditions and the transparent attempts by mega-corporations to put on a friendly face while remaining exploitative.

Those familiar with Bong’s previous work will be well-aware of his fondness for heightened reality, which can often feel lighthearted but is used to deliver a direly serious message. Some call this tonal inconsistency, but Bong uses ridiculous characters like Johnny—with Gyllenhaal recalling his origins in over-the-top spastic comedy—as tragic figures, not comedic ones. After the opening minutes that establish the legitimately sweet relationship between Okja and Mija, there isn’t a moment of silliness that isn’t somehow wedded to an impending disaster, and vice versa.

Both Okja and Snowpiercer follow our heroes on an irreversible path in the pursuit of justice and the attempts by charismatic adversaries to deter them along the way, and neither arrive at their ultimate destination in a predictable manner. Bong is a modern master of molding preposterous stories into sharp satires, occasionally pessimistic toward humanity’s ability to change for the better but always with an eye toward those committed to doing the right thing no matter what. Bold, original and uncompromising, Okja is one of the must-see streams of the summer.

This is the last of a series of reviews of movies available to stream on demand.


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