Okja Review

One of the great joys of being a film lover is the feeling of anticipating a new film from a director you greatly admire. The knowledge that soon, there will be a new story from them is a great feeling. Then, when the film arrives and isn’t what you expected it to be, the rolling feeling of disappointment appears like an unwelcome guest who ruins your toilet. Sure, it’s partly your fault for self-hyping something up so much before actually watching it, and the filmmaker is not at fault for simply producing a new film. After all, not everything can be shining brilliance.

South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho has consistently been one of the most exciting modern directors working in genre films today. Heading all the way back to his 2000 film Barking Dogs Never Bite, and through his perfect Zodiac companion piece, Memories of Murder, to his sci-fi greats The Host and Snowpiercer, Joon-Ho’s darkly comic, yet socially conscious tales have been consistently entertaining and thought provoking. Enter his 2017 film, Okja. A film that also contains a socially conscious plot, with darkly comedic moments, that’s all rolled into an epic tale to make you think.

And boy is this is a misfire. It’s hard to say exactly who is to blame for the madness, the insanity, the over the top bonkers nonsense that is boiled into this ‘save the planet’ story. Is it co-writer Jon Ronson (who previously attempted to meld dark comedy with a socially conscious ‘true’ story with The Men Who Stare at Goats)? Is it a case of Bong Joon-Ho’s humour simply failing to translate to a predominantly English speaking cast? Or, is it the fact that the attempt to straddle both sides of the ‘eating cute animals’ debate falls flat dismally.

Okja wants to present a world of pure imagination that skewers capitalism, and genetically modified foods, and overpopulation, and the cruelty of farming animals, and sibling rivalry, and eco-warriors, and shit, well, just about anything that comes up under a google search of the words: vegan, capitalism, farming. So, the plot, oh what a plot: a bunch of lucky farmers are given the opportunity of a lifetime by much hated GMO corporation Mirando. That is, to help grow a genetically modified super-pig that is super clean for the environment, and after ten years of productive pig growing, one of these lucky super pigs will be crowned the greatest super pig of them all and then subsequently killed and eaten. No doubt, the fate of the other super pigs is much the same as the winner, so really, they’re all winners.

Eccentric characters and stories have been used throughout cinematic history to help explore themes. Take Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for example – a fascinatingly damning look at the allure and chocolate covered pitfalls of capitalism. Through a larger than life Wonka, and various obnoxious children, the various aspects of capitalism are exposed, and as Wonka, Charlie and his Grandpa fly off into the sky in a glass elevator at the end, we’re less likely to feel excited for their future, and instead feel a sense of melancholy. That sadness exists because under the do-whats and whizzbangs of the Chocolate Factory, is a character who is understandably human.

Joon-Ho’s world takes the notion that power corrupts all to an insane, illogical extreme. Tilda Swinton’s braces wearing, overexcited CEO Lucy Mirando opens the film in a mad, excessive, cloying speech about the company trying to do good by the world. All believability that this character exists in a tangible world not too dissimilar to ours goes out the window when she exclaims that the super pigs need to ‘taste fucking good’. Minutes later, we’re exposed to the creature from another planet, Jake Gyllenhaal’s approximation of a human, Johnny Wilcox. Coming across like a child who has just drunk a litre of Red Bull and tries to act like an adult, Gyllenhaal’s Wilcox is all high pitched yips and frenetic squeals. He’s so far into the realm of extreme eccentricity, that his presence can’t help but put a damper on everything else on screen. Take these characters out of this film, and they very well may work, but combined together they simply feel like two talented actors allowed to run amok and go as crazy with their improvisation ‘skills’ as possible.

Then there’s the members of the ALF – Animal Liberation Front – who are so ludicrously over the top into the realm of trying to leave no ecological footprint, that they become the epitome of the ‘pro-meat eater’s view of the madness of a leaf eating vegan that apologises to a tomato before they eat it. So eager to be green, clean and ‘for the planet’ that their actions inevitably become as damaging as the people they’re fighting against. Lead by Paul Dano as Jay, and featuring Stephen Yeun as K, and a bunch of other equally forgettable folks as hair colours, the ALF proves to be as nefarious as the Mirando corporation. Their willing manipulation and disregard for Okja’s carer, Bong Joon-Ho’s ALF suggests that when we dedicate our lives to animals, we lose all care and respect for humanity. 

Stuck in the middle of this is Seo-Hyun Ahn’s wide eyed and innocent farm girl, Mija. The other focal point for the audiences unearned empathy, Mija just wants her loyal pig-shaped dog back. After all, she lives a quiet, solitary life with her grandfather in the middle of nowhere. Okja is her friend, and she would move the world to get her back. Look, on a primal level, a child wanting to get their faithful companion back is a lovely idea, but when you combine it in a blender with two furious opposing groups that spout ridiculous dialogue and curse every second word, all innocence goes out the window, and some of that tedious, obnoxiousness rubs off on it.

So – if you’re a corporate employee, then you’ll turn into a madman, and if you’re a bleeding heart greeny activist, you’re a loony. But if you live off the land and romp around with your tiny eyed, big eared super pig, then you’ll be a quiet, peaceful individual who respects others. It’s that simple. This is really the only consistent thing in the otherwise contradiction laden film. Maybe Joon-Ho is a making a point that everything in the world is a contradiction – you can’t have tasty food without the pain and suffering of animals, you can’t be an activist without damaging the world. That the ouroborous that is the world will never take its tail out of its mouth for just one moment to recognise the damage it’s doing to itself.

It would be something if Okja’s heart was in the right place, but it’s so muddled under its manufactured cuteness that one has to wonder if they’ve genetically modified the heart right out of it. The design of Okja herself is so pathetically manipulative that it goes from being a sympathetic creature to being one that you wish they’d just hurry up and pull that airgun trigger and put it out of its misery. Square teeth, small eyes, big ears, abnormally oversized – this is a transmogrified hippo by way of a manatee in search of a comb over and a pair of glasses to make it look like a pig nerd. Okja and her fellow super pigs are so obviously designed to be empathetic that they fail completely.

Combine all that with a series of avoidable plot holes*, and you’ve got a spoiled stew full of week old mutton. On the surface, Okja appears to be a message movie – one that should have viewers walking away not wanting to touch another slice of bacon in their life -, except for the fact that Bong Joon-Ho is less interested in the message, and more interested in putting his young lead actress through the wringer, and seeing how far he can manipulate his audience. There’s little of value that hasn’t already been preached on your Facebook feed, or from other well meaning films like Fast Food Nation.

Simply put – if the world wasn’t going to give a shit about the animals they eat, and world hunger, and overpopulation, by now, then this film is going to change their mind.

*Such as, when they already have a farm full of these super pigs, why even have had this ‘ten year competition’ to begin with?

Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Cast: Seo-Hyun Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal
Writers: Bong Joon-Ho, Jon Ronson

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!