TL;DR – Beautiful, moving, devastating, unsettling, emotional, heart-breaking & powerful
Score – 5 out of 5 stars
P.S. – There is a post-credit scene
Wow, just wow, for a long time Netflix has been moving into the movie distribution industry, but so far they really have not put out anything truly remarkable, focusing more on Adam Sandler type movies, when they actually get around to promoting them. So when some friends in the industry mentioned that Okja was the real thing, I was surprised, then I found out that it was made by Bong Joon-ho, whose Snowpiercer was a fascinating film, even if I did have a couple of issues with it. So I loaded up Netflix, put out my lunch, and wondered what we were going to see, and I can honestly say I was not prepared for the feels, in any way shape and form.
To set the scene it is 2007 and Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) head of the scandal-ridden chemical/agricultural Mirando Corporation is making an announcement to the world that a new pig was found deep in the countryside of Chile, it is bigger than any pig found before, like hippo sized big. Twenty-six piglets from this monster pig were being sent all over the world to farmers to raise them by traditional farming methods, and ten years from now the best pig would be brought back to New York for the whole world to see. Skip forward ten years and we find ourselves in the mountains of South Korea, where we find Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) walking the massive Okja through the forest. It is here where we get to know Mija and her grandfather Heebong (Byun Hee-bong) who live on top of the mountain away from society. However, this is also where we get to meet Okja, we learn that she is a beautiful, caring, and extremely intelligent being, who is able to understand the world around her, engage in complex emotions, and risk her life to save others. In many respects, Okja is, if not sentience, is clearly sapient. Their life is a happy one, until the day that Mirando comes to do their final tests and bring along the face of Mirando – Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), who after seeing Okja declares her the ‘super pig’. Miji’s grandfather takes her away from their house to visit her parent’s graves and it is here is where we discover the truth, he didn’t buy Okja from Mirando, and instead they are taking Okja away to New York. From here Mija’s world opens up as she is placed in the middle of competing interests, corporate greed, animal activists, and the very worst of consumer culture.
So we can’t talk about the movie Okja, without talking about Okja the creation. Over time I have seen a lot of films do children working with CGI creatures, and it is getting better and better, indeed you have such wonderful examples of the very thing in last year’s The BFG and Pete’s Dragon. However, the visual effects team here has taken it a step further, because you forget that they are CGI creations, and you see them as real characters. When they are hurt you feel the pain as if they were a real creature, and not a VFX creation. I think the last time I was sucked in like this was the puppets created for Farscape, or maybe the motion capture work of the great Andy Serkis. Now of course part of what makes Okja feel real is the wonderful acting from Ahn Seo-hyun, who I think should be an Oscar contender for her role here. She provides the movie’s heart but also its strength, and for someone so young to be acting with such power, it is amazing to watch.
Indeed the acting in general here is fantastic, Bong Joon-ho has a way of getting quite peculiar performances out of his cast, but it is really effective. Tilda Swinton’s character has a deeply complicated life and motivations, and no one is more perfect for this role. You feel that she really cares about her company and doing what she thinks is good, it’s not an act, she is trying to escape her father’s legacy, though of course like many people she finds herself doing the exact same things. Jake Gyllenhaal, well I have no idea what he is doing here, but whatever it is he is playing the hell out of it, I don’t think I have loathed a character like this in quite a while. The one big surprise for me is the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) characters, especially Jay (Paul Dano) & K (Steven Yeun). When we first meet them they are a bit silly, and then when explaining their master plan I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes, it was such rose-tinted glasses view of groups like the ALF, and this whole line of political ideology. However, as the film went on and we saw more and more of them, and at each instance, they actually follow through on their beliefs you can’t help but root for them. You even have Giancarlo Esposito who plays Frank, and spends the whole film lurking around on the sidelines, and this might not sound like much but he is amazing in just sitting back and then dropping that one sentence that shifts everything. It is these characters that help sell the premise, and they will make you root for them, hate them, or desperately want them to succeed.
On the technical side of things, this movie is also firing on all cylinders. The sets and locations they use in the film are beautiful, if you have never visited South Korea, you will after this, and if you have in the past it will create a longing to go back. The forests and mountains, rivers and ponds, I just want to walk around and spend a week there. Will this movie be to South Korea, what Lord of the Rings was to New Zealand, no, but I’m sure it will be great for local tourism. As well as the sets and locations, I have to give a big shout out to Jaeil Jung mesmerising score. There actually is not much music in the films, generally, it is left to just vocals and fantastic sound arrangement, but when it is there it perfectly highlights the sombre mood, or makes you unsettled through harsh juxtaposition. When it comes to pacing I think the film keeps everything moving at a pace where you can absorb everything that is happening, both good and bad, but bar a little bit in the middle it doesn’t drag.
There are so many themes at play here, the power of images and perception, the determination in the face of despair, how we live our lives and what impact that has on the world around us. Now nowhere do all of these themes coalesce than in the ending of the film which I have to talk about. Now clearly there will be [SPOILERS] for the rest of this paragraph, so please go watch the film if you haven’t yet, and then come back. The ending of Okja broke my heart in ways I was not expecting. There is this moment in the film where the ALF trap was sprung and in most films, the heroes will win, the greedy corporations will be exposed and everyone will live happily ever after, this is not that kind of film. Instead, Lucy’s sister Nancy (Tilda Swinton) arrives and takes over and immediately moves to have all of the pigs slaughtered so they can start production. Jay, K and Mija rush to where all the animals are being kept and led to slaughter. Mija rushes through the slaughterhouse as we see the animals being carved up for parts and finds Okja about to be executed. Here she stairs down Nancy whilst Okja sits there about to get a bolt through her head. Mija is all alone, she has no one to support her, so she finds the one thing that persuades Nancy, cold hard cash, and buys Okja. So Mija and Okja walk out away from the slaughter house, but nothing is changed, there is no one who can save the rest of the animals, there is no deus ex machina that sweeps in. As we walk away the whole pen is led into the slaughterhouse one by one. Mija can’t save everyone, all she can do is save Okja, and it hurts to watch. Then, of course, the movie gives a reminder that these are fully intelligent animals as two parents who understand their fate quickly push their child through the electric fence and Okja knowing what is happening hides it in her mouth so the guards don’t see. Good movies entertain, great films provoke, and fantastic films make you feel. I grieved for those who were lost even though they are fictional, digital creations, even though Mija and Okja escaped, I still grieved. [End of Spoilers]
In the end, do I recommend Okja, yes, yes I do, though you may want to have some tissues with you when you do. The performances are amazing, the creature creation is top notch, and this movie will make you feel. In many respects I think come Oscar time this has to be a contender, it will be a great disservice if it is not.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay by – Bong Joon-ho & Jon Ronson
Story By – Bong Joon-ho
Music by – Jaeil Jung
Cinematography by – Darius Khondji
Edited by – Yang Jin-mo
Starring – Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Yoon Je-moon, Choi Woo-shik, Shirley Henderson, Tilda Swinton & Giancarlo Esposito
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: na; Germany: na; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 15; United States: na