Bong Joon Ho’s latest is a case of too many ideas, not enough cohesion, and a complete misunderstanding of who its audience is supposed to be. Okja can’t make up its mind as to whether it wants to be a kids film, a biting social commentary, a bloody thriller or a comedy. It tries for everything and misses all of them.
Korean export Bong Joon Ho, the craftsman behind the stellar films The Host and Snowpiercer, turns his eye to a more family oriented narrative Okja, the story of a genetically engineered super pig and her precocious carer (well sort of), and has assembled some big Hollywood heavyweights to join in. Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Netflix co-produce the feature alongside Tilda Swinton whom also stars with An Seo Hyun, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yuen, and Daniel Henshall.
Our tale opens in a decidedly adult and off-kilter way with a nervous CEO Lucy Mirando, head of a agricultural food company, launching an ambitious new 10 year project to stave off the waning food sources of the global population – The Super Pig Contest. 26 genetically enhanced ‘Super Pigs’ get sent to various locations around the world where they are raised for a decade and the most impressive specimen after that period will be crowned the winner.
Ten years pass – Enter Okja, the Korean entrant whom is now a fully adult female, who lives in pastoral Korea with feisty 14 year old Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her grandfather. Okja and Mija are virtually inseparable, living an idyllic and eco-friendly existence, and they share a connection that goes beyond owner and pet.
When Mirando spokesman (and TV celebrity vet) Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal in a career worst performance) turns up and selects Okja as the winner, she is taken from the farm and is set to be transported to New York. All this, unbeknownst to Mija, has been pre-agreed with her grandfather.
It’s at this point of separation that the film shifts gear and moves from frolicky family film to kidnap corporate heist and espionage thriller mode. Taking on animal liberation activism, nefarious corporate culture, ambition, scientific experimentation and the treatment of livestock in the food industry, Okja wildly sways in trying to be all things to everyone.
Okja is a mess. At the heart of the film is a family fable of a young girl’s spirit to rescue her pet but the narrative simply cannot hold its course. It is littered with completely unnecessary coarse language which will deter parents from plonking their tots in front of this (which, if the film makers were guided properly, this is intended for) and then there’s scene of abject brutal violence which pushes the ratings out of their grasp. What’s left is a checkerboard of non cohesive scenes that belong in different films.
Tilda Swinton is all but wasted in dual roles as Nancy and Lucy Mirando. A subplot of sibling rivalry is played up heavily for a resolution of sharing one lame scene together. Gyllenhaal is irritating as a fading TV star who, in one particularly brutal ‘rape’ sequence that belongs in Starship Troopers moreso than here, is defiantly incoherent to everything that preceded him.
Paul Dano, Lilly Collins, Daniel Henshall and Steven Yuen fair a little better as a band of activists but their sequences (again, marred by overly graphic violence) belong in an entirely different film. This thread is sort-of played for comedy and a nugget of subtext about their sociopathic leader (Dano) is never fully explored.
An Seo Hyun, ostensibly the lead in this mess, is as shell shocked and stunned as we the audience are in trying to work out what’s going on and what we are doing here. Her super human speed in learning English, however, is a film all its own. One minute she’s in her own adventure film, the next minute she’s being kidnapped, or rampaging through Seoul, or being beaten up by security guards.. It’s baffling.
A post credit sequence all but renders the entire film’s focus obsolete. I could go on, but you get the drift. Storylines don’t evolve here, they are just rammed in.
Suffering from a case of too many ideas and not one of them fully developed to a realised narrative. Okja is brought undone by its wealth of creative talent’s ambition over telling a succinct story. It’s pretty to look at but is easily Bong Joon Ho’s weakest film to date.
OKJA is on NETFLIX NOW!