Director Bong Joon-Ho is no stranger to “monster” movies, having previously done The Host and Snowpiercer (guess what was the monster in that film). He is also no stranger to having lofty ideals in his pictures, often of the liberal / humanist variety. This is where Snowpiercer gets mentioned again, for not just having an intense statement to say, but for not copping out in the end. Its convictions are strong. Bong Joon-Ho’s convictions are strong. In Okja, he has reached the peak of monstrosity and message making, and for Netflix audiences everywhere, there is no going back.
“Okja is a socio-political fairy tale about the lengths we all go to for our friends…”
To put it somewhat simply, Okja is a socio-political fairy tale about the lengths we all go to for our friends, about the dark depths people will reach out of insecurity, and about the standard operating procedure of an industry we accept as “necessary”. If that all reads like a mouthful, it shouldn’t be too surprising; this is another movie with great complexity from a director who likes to challenge everyone without neglecting anyone. Okja goes a long way, as did Snowpiercer, in being within the grasp of average viewers without having to drop any piece. This I would credit to an eye for unforgettable moments and evocative / provocative images, all of which do not talk down to us from a pedestal. Nothing “know it all” about Okja, but it does know quite a bit, and won’t shy away.
At the center of the film isn’t just the relationship between a young Korean farm girl and her best friend – a genetically modified super pig named Okja, but rather the monster behind it all. This pig was designed by a massive conglomerate (with allusions to the very real Monsanto) who has decided to bring the animal to downtown New York and show it off to the world in a triumphant ceremony, where their master race of edible creatures will be unveiled. And then, subsequently, slaughtered in mass for immediate consumption. It’s not difficult to draw holocaust comparisons here, as that is where the mind goes to when witnessing the food production at play. Honestly, it was a brave move to draw such lines in this film, as few will speak up against such powers, and even fewer will straight up call them Nazis. And yet, here we are. A 2017 Netflix movie, connecting the dots from Hitler to modern day capitalist corporate culture.
Okja is biting with tenderness and edginess, which go hand in hand in this story. Tonally, the movie keeps pace with its varying emotions at quite a clip, giving equal parts satire and drama to scenes that require a little bit of both. When all points reach NYC, a crescendo comes about of high stakes, high pathos and hi-larity. Prior to this, a chase sequence in Seoul gives Benny Hill and The Blues Brothers a run for their money with many risk taking laughs and physical comedics. It might be hard to label Okja under one particular genre but, as I wrote above, fairy tale seems to make the most sense.
“Okja is biting with tenderness and edginess…”
Tilda Swinton, playing the image obsessed corporate head honcho, moves around with anxious grace and careful uncertainty, almost like she’s walking on eggshells (Neo Hitler need not wear a moustache or scream a lot). Ahn Seo-hyun is absolutely fearless and confident as Okja’s protector, always causing a stir and being a force of nature. But it is the execution and performance of Okja herself that caught my attention. This cgi made animal is incredibly emotive – saying more with its eyes than with its yelps – and shockingly textured, almost wanting us to give it a hug and feel its skin and breath. If only we all could do that, maybe we’d reconsider the grocery choices we make. Okja isn’t about shaming or finger pointing (at least not in the first), but rather identifying, understanding and empathizing. Don’t expect to feel much for the wicked witch of the tale, but that’s ok; someone HAD to be the monster.
Okja (2017) Director Bong Joon-Ho / Writers Bong Joon-Ho, Jon Ronson / Stars Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Ahn Seo-hyun
5 out of 5