What an odd work “Okja” is. Besides being an offbeat hybrid between South Korean film and American Hollywood film, this is also a quirky cross of several different genres which are somehow juxtaposed together in one curious bundle, and I enjoyed that a lot even though it is not wholly successful. The movie alternatively works as a zany adventure drama, a broad social satire, and a grim horror story, and it is rather amazing to see how the movie mostly balances itself well between its many contrasting and clashing genre elements as casually jumping from one narrative point to another.
Anyway, what the hell can I expect anything else from director Bong Joon-ho? Since his debut feature film “Barking Dogs Never Bite” (2000), he has consistently attempted his own fusion of different genres as shown from “Memories of Murder” (2003), “The Host” (2006), “Mother” (2009), and “Snowpiercer” (2013), and “Okja” is not so different from his previous works in that aspect. Like Bong’s other works, the movie is bountiful with many goodies to be appreciated, and we gladly go along with its eccentric ride as totally involved in one touching relationship at the center of its story.
The movie opens with a big promotional event held by a multi-global corporation named Mirando, and its decidedly cheerful CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) introduces a new type of pig which is actually a genetically modified species but is promoted instead as a natural species newly found in Chile and then grown in Arizona. Emphasizing that this ‘super pig’ can be an answer to the increasing global demand for food, Mirando announces her ambitious plan; 26 of super pigs will be individually sent to various farmers around the world, and there will be a special event after 10 years, which will present the best one among the bunch.
10 years later, we meet one of these super pigs, which was sent to a farmer living in a remote mountain area of South Korea. Looking like a cross between hippopotamus and manatee, this super pig, named Okja, has been under the care of Heebong (Byun Hee-bong) and his young granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), and the close relationship between Mija and Okja is apparent to us as we watch how they spend their free time together in a mountain forest surrounding Heebong and Mija’s little house. When Mija gives Okja some soothing words shortly after one precarious circumstance, we do not hear what exactly she is saying to her big friend, but we feel the intimacy established between them, and that makes the scene all the more emotionally resonant.
On one day, there come several visitors including Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a wacky zoologist and TV personality who has been a public representative of the Mirando Corporation. They come for evaluating Okja, and Okja is soon taken away from Mija because it is chosen as the best super pig to be sent to New York City. Understandably angry and furious about this, Mi-ja is determined to regain Okja by any means necessary, so she immediately goes to Seoul, where Okja is currently being prepared for being sent to New York City.
The plot gets thickened as Mi-ja inadvertently gets involved with a bunch of animal rights activists. Like Mija, they want to save Okja from the grim fate awaiting her in US, and there is an amusingly disjointed moment when they try to communicate with her via their translator, who turns out to be a little too eager about following their cause. While not knowing what is exactly going on, Mija subsequently finds herself sent to New York City along with Okja, and Mirando is fully ready to use them for promoting what may be her greatest business achievement.
Going up and down along with Mija and other substantial characters, the movie serves us with several different moments to remember. In case of an action sequence unfolded in a downtown area of Seoul, it alternatively amuses and thrills us as peppered with nice details to notice (my favorite one is a big pork advertisement on the wall, by the way), and the farcical score by Jung Jae-il further accentuates the comical aspect of this sequence. In case of one particular scene later in the movie, it will surely make you think twice about eating pork or other kinds of meat, and that is why one small moment around the end of this gut-chilling scene feels tragically poignant.
While I admire how the screenplay by Bong and his co-writer Jon Ronson goes for many unconventional things, some parts of the movie do not work as well as intended, and the movie pushes its broad characterization a bit too far at times. It is rather fun to see notable performers like Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal willingly hurling themselves into their caricatures roles under Bong’s deft direction, but not all of them are successful, and Gyllenhaal often looks too strained in his supposedly intentional over-the-top performance, though I must admit that Gyllenhaal drinking a bottle of soju is something we do not see everyday.
Nevertheless, the movie works on the whole as an entertaining mixed bag as its weak and strong elements are held together by the emotional power generated from its sensitive depiction of Mija and Okja’s relationship. Simple and direct in her sincere acting, Ahn Seo-hyun is believable in her scenes with Okja, and Okja is a convincing CGI creature imbued with life, personality, and some intelligence.
“Okja”, which is currently available on Netflix and is also being shown at a number of movie theaters in South Korea, can be described as a ‘flawed’ work, but it is equipped with so much of style and personality that I came to regard its many flaws and holes with affectionate amusement during my viewing. We need more of movies like that these days, you know.