EIFF 2017 – Okja – Scottish Premiere
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Cast: Tilda Swinton, An Seo Hyun, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun HeeBong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson
Run Time: 118mins
For what is ostensibly a family adventure, Okja, has caused quite a bit of controversy. Although not necessarily for its content, the movie has actually been labelled “vegetarian propaganda” in some corners of the internet, but also its method of release as it comes to us via everyone’s favorite video screening network, Netflix. This caused particular consternation at Cannes, where it played in competition, where the Netflix logo was loudly booed leading the festival change its “In Competition” rules after.
Thankfully the viewing public will probably care little for the grand “Streaming vs Theatrical” debates and it is unlikely to detract from the viewing pleasure of a movie that in my opinion, is genuinely a pleasure to watch!
We open with a grand press conference with Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), a quirky colorful character that somewhat brings to mind her character in “Moonrise Kingdom”, the new CEO of the Mirando Corporation where she explains they have found a new “super-pig” (which are like a pig/hippo hybrid) one that is more sustainable, Eco-friendly, produces fewer excretions and in her words “tastes fucking good”. Lucy also announces that the corporation will be running a huge ten year long competition where a number of these “super pigs” will be raised in countries dotted across the world, raised according to the farming traditions of each native land.
We cut quickly forward to meet one of the “super pigs” Okja and 13 year old Mija (An Seo Hyun) who has helped raise Okja with her grandfather from a very young age. This segment of the film is particularly interesting as in these near wordless scenes we see the bond between Mija and Okja as they wander round South Korean Mountains. These scenes are almost Ghibli-esque and also show what a great creation Okja is while many a CGI creatures are dead-eyed and soulless, Okja’s doleful eyes makes this CGI creature seem emotive and fully-formed, and above all else easy to root for!
Also easy to get behined is little Mija who is excellently played by An Seo Hyun, and when Okja is recalled by the Mirando corporation, its Miija to the rescue as we get to see what a resourceful, feisty and no-nonsense character young Mija really is as we watch her pursue her beloved friend Okja’s captured through the Korean city of Seoul. It is in this segment we get a brilliantly staged chase scene which is curiously the second action sequence I have seen this year scored by John Denver’s “Annie Song” (the other being in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire). This chase is instigated by the Paul Dano, in another great nervy, twitchy passive-aggressive very Paul Dano performance, led Animal Liberation Front who maybe the world’s politest activists ever?!
What works really great here also, is that while the main satirical aim here is pointed towards the corporations, writer-director Joon Ho along with his co-writer Jon Ronson (more famous for his journalism but whom also wrote the screenplay for Frank) are carefully not to make the animals rights activist overly saintly, but as a mixture of well meaning, deceptive and self-serving folk.
The satire generally is incisive and sharp not that should come as surprise as both Snowpiercer and, arguably Joon Ho’s most famous film, The Host are genre films that satirise class and societal structure without beating you over the head with it!
As this film’s goes on it gets progressively darker and the third act it get particularly grim indeed. This gear shift is somewhat jarring given the frothiness of some of the events before and the many colorful and zany characters that populate the film, some of whom border on cartoonish, None more so than Jake Gylenhaal as “animal lover” Johnny Wilcox who comes on like a sozzled manic-depressive Steve Irwin. It is type of performance that will go down a storm with some and entirely grate with others. However even if not every gear shift works in the film you can only commend a project that mixes family adventure tropes with serious animal rights themes and fart gags with biting satire on so-called “ethical” capitalism.
Verdict: A freewheeling blend of genre and themes that do not always coalesce but is packed with enough strong performances, sharp writing, strong direction and visuals that make this overall an extremely enjoyable, moving and thought provoking movie experience.
Words by Scott Murphy