Film Review: Okja

by Chris Piper on June 28, 2017

Welcome to the animal funny farm

Okja (left) and Mija (An Seo Hyun) share a moment.

She has eyes the color of sunlit amber. She has a face that always reflects your best mood. Just being near her, feeling the warmth of her body as you wake up from an afternoon nap, sends waves of serenity through you. Sometimes, when you’re not sure where she is, and you call after her, the moments before her reply can seem like small eternities.

Too bad she’s a 500-pound, computer-generated cross between a pig, a hippo, a puppy, and a walking, squawking emoji, and too bad you’re a 12-year old girl who’s known nothing else and has no idea what’s to become of her, and too bad the film you’re both in can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be about.

The central problem at the center of Okja (prounounced oakjuh), now streaming on Netflix, is that it confuses the animals we befriend and fall in love with the animals we eat. The film works very hard to scold its psychopathic corporations and sympathize with its bumbling but good-hearted animal rights activists, but its tragically disjointed script and the surprisingly weak performances of its central characters, not to mention the sheer impossibility that is Okja, leave us with a jumbled mess of an experience.

We open on an abandoned warehouse where shafts of afternoon light fall on a press conference of sorts in New York. Mirando Corporation scion Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), as starkly light as her background is dark, tells of a new day for the old meat processing company, and a new ten-year global super-pig competition to take genetically modified pigs and produce superfood for generations to come.  

Cut to the highlands of Korea ten years later, with sun-dappled brooks, meandering hillside paths, and canopies of shade trees that have supported super-pig Okja and her two caretakers: the girl Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her grandfather Heebong (Byun Heebong). Cinematographer Darious Khondji takes great pains to contrast dusty and dirty New York with the verdant hillsides of South Korea, but the shift happens so abruptly that any attempt at a controlled tonal shift is lost.

Mija and Okja have become soulmates. They roam the hillsides together, wade in streams together, and seem to have a some sort of a human/super-pig connection unknown to the rest of the world. In one scene, after Mija has ventured too closely to a cliffside, Okja knowingly saves the girl, and seemingly sacrifices herself. Are we witnessing the birth of a new kind of computer-generated super-Lassie? Later that night Mija and Heebong sit down to a fish stew while chickens strut around just outside of their simple home. I guess, as Kurt Cobain reminds us, “it’s ok to eat fish, ’cause they don’t have any feelings.”

As expected, the uncaring minions of Mirando arrive to cart away Okja, and a horrified Mija realizes she’s losing her best friend. Much more horrifying is the entrance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Dr. Johnny Wilcox, “the face of the Mirando Corporation.” Wilcox seems to have stumbled on set directly from a lesser Marx Brothers or Three Stooges film. Gyllenhaal over-inflates the character with an amount of psychological and physical buffoonery that obscures everything else.

Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) working the crowd at a super-pig celebration.

As the film hurtles toward and through New York, we’re introduced to the members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), but mostly to an ensemble of stock misfits and malcontents headed by Jay (Paul Dano). They have hatched a Hail Mary plan to rescue Okja and expose Mirando as just another Tyson Foods hiding behind savvy marketing. Dano seems to have realized that the film needed an eye at the center of its storm, as his performance maintains a reassuringly even strain.

It all comes down to a super-pig parade and celebration that the ALF sabotages, and from which they try to rescue Okja. Everything wrong with this film also comes together here. It’s baffling why there would even be a parade and celebration to honor a global competition to raise a population of super-pigs, which will then be butchered and eaten. Folks in the parade even throw packets of beef jerky to the crowds, who are there to witness the winning super-pig get its fifteen minutes of fame. Why would people even show up? Nevertheless, Lucy, Jay, Mija, Dr. Wilcox, and the lurking ALFers all converge on the event. Lucy loses all control, and we all wonder what the point was of the whole exercise.

The remaining big plot question is: What will happen to Okja? The answer comes in a grim slaughterhouse scene, which, to the film’s credit, at least takes us inside the slaughterhouse.

It would have been nice if director Bong Joon Ho had made an admirable film, but there is a larger story going on. Okja’s release straight to Netflix garnered a four-minute standing ovation, but kicked up quite a storm at Cannes, so much so that the festival had to quickly change its rules to disallow the film from any prize contention. Nevertheless, Okja represents the vanguard of what promises to be a wave of VOD (Video On Demand) feature-length films from A-list directors. There are strong arguments for and against. Bong and the cast have argued strongly and publicly that Netflix gave them total creative control to make a film that otherwise would have been severely altered. And, even more compellingly, streaming means that all Netflix subscribers instantly have access, globally, so someone in Sacramento can watch, enjoy, and comment at the same time as someone in Singapore. No longer does a film have to build popularity through word of mouth. It’s everywhere instantly. That, along with total creative control, should be very attractive.

On the other hand, the good cinephiles at Cannes have a point. The history of this art form assumes a certain amount of collective experience, and most of our memories of watching significant films would be substantially less intense had we not been in a theater with others who were also laughing, or cringing, or digging their nails into countless armrests.  

In the case of Okja, a sweet irony: The film’s advance screening was held in a theater. And while this reviewer left that theater less than pleased, he passed a woman standing among friends and visibly sobbing, an image more striking and memorable than any produced by the film.


Netflix subscribers can stream Okja starting today.


Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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