Saturday, July 1, 2017

Film Review: Okja

Directed by: Joon-ho Bong
Starring: Seo-Hyun Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Henderson, Steven Yeun, Daniel Henshall, Lily Collins, Devon Bostick, Je-mun Yun, Woo-sik Choi, Hee-Bong Byun
Rating: TV-MA
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Runtime: 1 hr. 58 min.

Joon-ho Bong is known to many in the west as the writer/director of the well-received, "Snowpiercer"; a look at class structure and overpopulation through the use of a post-apocalyptic train society. Others may also know his work on "The Host (Gwoemul)" -a modern day "Jaws"- and "Mother (Madeo)", which happens to be my personal favorite work of his (read: I should note that I have yet to see "Barking Dogs Never Bite (Flandersui gae)" or "Memories of a Murder (Salinui chueok)"). Joon-ho continues his record of releasing ornate, obscure cinema with "Okja"; currently streaming on Netflix. As with Joon-ho's previous work, the film focuses on real societal concerns and offers up an offbeat story to tackle them. Similar to "Snowpiercer", the film takes at look at issues with overpopulation, namely the food industry. As usual, minor spoilers ahead.

The film starts with us following Lucy Morando (Swinton), CEO of the Morando Corporation, through a dingy, rusted warehouse towards a press release. Here we learn of a mystical "super pig" that was "discovered" in Chile, which even as a baby is larger in size than a full-grown pig. Through "genetic-engineering" the calf was duplicated, and her family sent around the world as part of a PR plan to see which farmer could develop the "super pig" to its full potential. It's a bit of a jarring intro with a lot of information thrown at the viewer, but Swinton's eccentric performance sells it.

A decade later, we are now in the mountains outside of Seoul, South Korea as Mija (Seo-Hyun) and her truck size adult "super pig" pal "Okja" traipse through the forest in search of fruit and fish. The sequence is beautiful and intimate as we see the two play games and work together. Things get a little out of hand, however, as Mija and Okja fall asleep and keep her grandfather (Hee-Bong) waiting. In order to get home quickly, Mija takes Okja through a perilous shortcut. Of course, things go wrong and Okja ends up in a dangerous situation trying to protect her friend. After the scenario, Okja is more than a little perturbed, so Mija whispers something in her ear. The "super pig" sits up and the two hug. It's incredibly touching and sets the tone for their relationship.

Eventually, the usual Morando researcher, Mundo Park (Je-mun), and animal television star, Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal), greet Mija, Okja, and grandpa at the house. To say Gyllenhaal's character is obtuse is being easy. He's a bit all over the place, and while it's hilarious, it's also a bit overwhelming after the touching adventure we just went through. Grandpa takes Mija away so the crew can work on filming Okja. Needless to say, it's a basic ruse so the crew can take Okja away to New York for the Morando "super pig" competition and the plot is set in motion.

The following chase sequences in the film are handled with aplomb as Joon-ho directs the hell out of each sequence. From break-ins to car chases through the city it's all handled exceptionally. The CGI is also handled very well with Okja blending into the environment perfectly, and the chase sequences having real weight. Sadly, a large part of the film's second act loses focus on Mija or Okja, and instead puts the lense on the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). It makes sense to have such a group in this film given the theme at hand, but too much of the film's runtime is padded with their agenda. Most noteworthy of this bunch is the subdued, but sensational Jay, played by Paul Dano, who -yet again- turns what could have been a bit character into a human being with true motives in only a short meeting with Mija; the man is severely underrated. The rest of the group is fairly one note, with Steven Yeun, Daniel Henshall, Lily Collins, and Devon Bostick not given much screen time to really matter.

The second act also cuts away to the folks over at Morando as they deal with the fallout of the chases and continue to question Lucy's place as CEO. Even if it's part of his character's motives, Giancarlo Esposito seems downright bored being there and his existence in the film is more plot device than anything. There are just so many moments in this middle third that could have been utilized to far better extent if they focused around Mija or Okja. To be fair though there is one sequence in the middle that I won't spoil, since it is truly one of the best sequences in the film. I'll just say this is the part where Gyllenhaal's character gets to shine.

The third act is fairly trite affair that does what's expected and gets our characters to where they need to be. The ending, however, is easily one of the most moving I have seen in quite some time. Letting the serenity of the moment take over the viewer in waves.

Before I sign off on the verdict, it would not do Seo-Hyun's performance service if I didn't mention how incredible it is. The 13-year-old actress does so as if she's a veteran. Working with a CGI creature to create an emotional bond is hard for even the most talented actor, but she nails it, and I hope we see more from her soon.

Okja suffers from an overworked second act, but the emotional journey of Mija and Okja under Joon-ho's deft direction ultimately sticks the landing and offers a fun -if frightening- look at the food industry. 3.5/5

- The Catalyst