Okja (2017)


Cinema can change hearts and minds. This is something that is imperative to understand – cinema isn’t only there to entertain, it is also there to occasionally show us something that will make us change our thinking, if not our entire lifestyle. When I started watching Okja, I wasn’t expecting to see one of the most moving films of recent years, a film that made me want to change quite a bit about myself and help contribute to the world in some way. But I am getting ahead of myself, because, above its message and meaning, Okja is a brilliant and incredibly fun film, albeit one with some moments that truly serve to shock. Bong Joon-ho holds nothing back in his latest film, and it is certainly why he is amongst the best working directors today.

South Korean cinema has given some truly extraordinary filmmakers the opportunity to have their visions realized. Perhaps the most exciting individual working in South Korean today is Bong Joon-ho. Not only did he make the absolutely superb Snowpiercer, his films Barkings Dogs Never Bite and Memories of Murder are absolute masterpieces (the latter is due for a rewatch, something I can easily do every month, but have been meaning to do for about two years now). Snowpiercer was such a monumental hit – with critics and audiences alike – it only makes sense that Bong would be able to go even bigger, and bigger he did go with Okja, a film that may not reach the philosophical highs of his previous films, but remains undeniably wonderful in every way.

Okja is about the sinister Mirando Corporation, and their CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) plans to promote a new brand of “super-pig” by distributing 26 “super-piglets” to various locations around the world, and after a decade, the “best” of these creatures will be brought to New York City for a major celebration – and it turns out to be the titular Okja. Little does the general public know, these endearing creatures are actually being bred for their meat, because the idea of genetically-modified foods is actually very repulsive, and like any capitalist organization, Mirando is just concerned with the almighty dollar. However, little does she (or any of her cronies, such as eccentric zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox, played by Jake Gyllenhaal) know, they have to face Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), Okja’s friend, a 14-year-old Korean farm-girl who is anything if not tenacious. With the help of renegade animal rights group the Animal Liberation Front, Mija takes on the challenge of retrieving her beloved Okja from the fell clutches of capitalism. What results is a contemporary fantasy adventure film that is eerily pertinent to our current social, economic and social climate.

In a film populated by well-known international performers, how is it possible that the real star of this film, and the best part of it, is Ahn Seo-hyun, a 13-year-old child actress without much acting experience other than some daytime soap operas? It is always a wonderful experience when you are introduced to a new but highly talented performer in a film such as this, especially when it is such a young individual as this. Ahn is a true revelation here, and she goes far beyond what I expected this performance to be – instead of simply looking adorable and following the story and allowing the more experienced actors to sell this film, Ahn herself takes on the challenge of telling this story through her incredible performance. Even more than her dedicated emotional range and the subtle nuances that define her performance, for quite a bit of Okja, Ahn was acting across from a CGI-rendered image, and considering some highly-esteemed actors have had trouble acting across from something that isn’t actually there, it is important to give those who succeed, like Ahn, the kudos and praise they deserve.

Now once again, as this often happens, I need to heap as much praise onto Tilda Swinton as possible. She is almost always the greatest part of anything she does, and she absolutely blew audiences away with her complex and hilarious performance in Snowpiercer. She truly is an actress beyond compare, and one of the greatest living performers. However, having said that, in an odd occurrence, Swinton is not the standout of Okja. That isn’t to imply that she is not excellent – she really is – she just doesn’t dazzle as much as she has in the past. Despite this, she still turns in a wonderfully wicked performance, playing the dual roles of Lucy Mirando and her even more villainous sister Nancy. The villains in Okja aren’t traditional villains – like many villains in Asian culture, they are colorful, quirky and oddball, and both Swinton and Gyllenhaal play very unique antagonists – and they are very different from the representations of corporate capitalist executives that we would expect to represent these big corporations out to make a huge profit. The villains in Okja are very memorable, because of a perfect synthesis between writer, director, and actor in the creation of these unique antagonists. Although (as a brief aside), I might even argue that Lucy Mirando isn’t necessarily a villain – she is someone who has her eyes set on making money, but she is committed to doing it in a way that is actually beneficial to the environment. But that is a conversation that needs to be had another time.

I might be a bit too pedantic, but I found Swinton’s smaller performance as Nancy far more brilliant than Lucy, mainly because there was just something sinister about Nancy, whereas Lucy was just utterly pathetic – Nancy was the true villain, not having a shred of remorse or feeling for anyone except herself. Complete apathy is a hallmark of a great villain, and despite only being right at the end, Nancy turns out to be the true antagonist – not only for Okja, but for her sister as well. There was a whole world of unexplored family tension that Bong could’ve explored more if he wanted to (it wouldn’t be beneficial to the story, but it wouldn’t hurt either). The fact that an actress like Swinton can create two completely different characters, varying widely in personality, but very little in appearance, is just testament to her absolute brilliance as a performer. She might not give her most memorable performance, but she still gives a great one full of complexities and fascinating character traits. If there is an actress one can always rely on to play a colorful and unique character, Swinton is certainly it.

Now let us get onto the real reason why we are here – Jake Gyllenhaal. I was excited when I heard Gyllenhaal was going to be in this film – he is a massively talented actor, and I was looking forward to seeing what he would do here. Then I read the initial reactions, with some people even claiming that he gave one of the worst performances they have ever seen in their life. Now I may lose all credibility here, but I will gladly go on record saying I loved absolutely every minute of Gyllenhaal’s performance in Okja. I really can’t explain precisely why, but this performance just blew me away. First of all, perhaps it may be because I have a penchant for excess in terms of acting – there is sometimes nothing more wonderful than a truly zany, over-the-top theatrical performance. Yet, Gyllenhaal still manages to go above and beyond every kind of artifice possible – to call him excessive would be a great understatement. His performance as Dr. Johnny Wilcox is so deeply eccentric and he often goes a bit too far – but I believe that was the point. This film was never going to be a gritty, realistic piece of cinema – so why should Gyllenhaal have to adhere to such an ideal?

Gyllenhaal primarily tackles the role of a showman, probably something right out of a classic medicine show of a bygone era. It is vaudeville on steroids. Gyllenhaal seemed to be playing a circus clown that had been snorting cocaine like it was going out of style. It is a deliciously unrestrained, lavish performance that understandably alienated some viewers, but I truly thought it served its purpose as being an overindulgent mess, which I assume was the aim all along. Gyllenhaal’s performance would not have been nearly as effective had he played the character in a less extravagant way – and consider that when we are first introduced to his character, he is shown to be an eccentric, but lovable, celebrity when he is on camera, and a nagging, irritating wreck when he is off-camera. This is carried throughout, as he is shown to be arrogant and obsessed with his image – only to reveal himself to be actually a truly malicious character that is far more evil than he initially appears to be. There is a moment later on in this film where Gyllenhaal actually takes his character from being an arrogant celebrity to an actual sinister figure. I won’t spoil the moment, but it is honestly a one that left me shaking in horror. It was the very definition of brutality, and it actually served to be far more disturbing than anything else I have seen this year. You can say what you want about Gyllenhaal’s performance, at least it is something that you won’t forget, for better or for worse – and it will be the one thing you remember the most about this film, and combining it with that moment, it is good that it won’t easily be forgotten, because it represents something that actually needs to be rectified by society, and soon (but I’ll discuss that later)

I have always said that Paul Dano is an impressive actor, even when the material he is given in some films is somewhat lacking occasionally. I wasn’t too enthusiastic about him being in Okja, not because I don’t like him (I am actually quite fond of him as an actor), but because very few directors use him right. I expected him to give a competent performance in a thankless role – but I wasn’t expecting it to be such an emotionally resonant performance. He plays Jay, the leader of the animal rights group, and he is equal parts heroic as he is sinister. He is mysterious, a drifter who has murky motives that prevent him from being a character we can understand fully. I may be reading a bit too much into his performance because it was by no means the most notable performance, but there was something about Dano that impressed me a whole bunch here. The cast of Okja is extraordinarily strong – the likes of Steven Yeun, Lily Collins and Giancarlo Esposito have memorable, but not overly big, roles that they manage to handle perfectly well – they contribute to the film without ever really doing anything that makes them the focal point. While it is easy to remember the performances from the likes of Swinton and Gyllenhaal (as it should be), it is important to give credit where credit is due, and the entire cast of Okja, from lead performers to supporting players, deserve kudos for taking part in such a wonderful film.

Okja is a modern film in a very literal way – it taps into our collective thoughts and anxieties and exposes what we are most insecure about, and how society functions. Okja has a very keen eye for showing society’s dependence on social media – the entire film is centered around a viral marketing campaign, and the whole idea of social media is explored and exposed throughout. Bong Joon-ho has always been a filmmaker who is keenly aware of what drives society, and he captures the zeitgeist of the moment perfectly – even if Okja is a somewhat fantastical film, it is still grounded in reality. Rather than being a complete fantasy, it is a realistic story that is garnished with various flourishes and otherworldly touches that keep it from being completely real, thus keeping it detached enough to not be utterly terrifying (and trust me, Okja has some horrifying moments), but believable enough so that audiences can connect with these characters on an emotional level.

Now I wouldn’t dare speak for everyone on the issue of changing your mindset after seeing this film. However, I can talk as an authority on one person – myself. Okja is a film that might have just changed my life, in a small way. This is a film that might not have an ulterior agenda, but it does appear that it is powerful enough to feel like the creators of this film did intend a particular meaning to be guaged. In short, Okja is about the problems with the meat industry, and it may convert many viewers to vegetarianism. That isn’t a bad thing at all – in fact, I am one of those that may consider adopting the more peaceful vegetarian lifestyle, because Okja does something that any film that wants to get a message across does – have a powerful meaning, and wrap it up in an emotionally strong, well-constructed narrative, and you will see people starting to think that way.

I know it seems like I am praising what appears to be propaganda, but believe me when I say it is anything but – Okja is a film that sets out to show an opinion, rather than to convert people into believing that idea. I doubt the creators of this film had the aim to simply disgust people into believing something, but rather to just show a side of life that is truthful, but that many people may not know about. It shows how meat is manufactured, and where it comes from – that was the simple intention. If someone can watch Okja and still want to eat meat, then that is their decision. The problem isn’t what people believe – it is not knowing the roots of their beliefs. Personally, Okja is shocking and brutal enough to make me want to change my lifestyle, but for others, it may not – and that is perfectly fine, because any film that tries to get everyone to change their thinking is, like I said, propaganda, which Okja certainly is not. Okja is a film about understanding your actions, and owning up to them, rather than being ignorant – not only about eating meat but about everything one does.

I will not deny that Okja is an admirable film specifically because of its no-holds-barred approach to showing its message – and it is a very important message at that. Animal cruelty is a huge problem in the world today, and while Okja might seem like a relatively harmless, fun film, there are several moments of complete and utter horror, especially towards the end, where the concept of mistreatment of animals is brought to the forefront. The slaughterhouse sequence is one of the most terrifying scenes out of any film I’ve seen this year – it is both horrifyingly scary and deeply saddening. Yet, it never tries to force false emotion, and every feeling the audience experiences will doubtlessly come from their honest, true sympathy. I believe most people are good and moral enough to understand this film’s message that regardless of whether or not you eat meat, there are still many people out there that torture these animals and treat them in ways that are far from ethical – and even if meat continues to be consumed, as it will be, there are still measures that can be implemented to ensure that animals are treated as fairly as possible. I hate to make this review less about the movie and more about political and social issues, but a film like Okja does stir up thought, and it allows these kinds of conversations to be had. A film that can change your thinking is always something that needs to be given credit.

Onto the film itself, Okja is a visually stunning film. It may not have the snowy, apocalyptic beauty if Snowpiercer, but the shifting action from the Korean countryside to the metropolis of New York City was quite delightful and a feast for the sense. Bong truly has an eye for detail, and everything about this film is just so meticulous – from the outrageous costumes to the production design. Everything just looked even better because of the brilliant cinematography that highlighted the details in Bong’s work. Also, I think the fact that someone managed to get Jake Gyllenhaal to wear the shortest shorts in history is enough to qualify Okja as something visually innovative and worthy of praise – how such short pants can exist bewilders me (but then again, so did Gyllenhaal’s entire performance).

I loved Okja. It may not be the career-best for anyone involved, but it certainly is amongst the best of the year. It has a beautiful narrative with a powerful story, boosted by strong performances and a dedicated team behind the scenes, doing everything to bring life to Okja – both the creature and the film as a whole. It is a highly original, wonderfully-made film which has some genuinely shocking moments (but they aren’t shocking enough to scare anyone away), while remaining unique. It is a film that may just change the way you live your life, or at least change the way you view the world in some small way. It is a wonderful film, and it proves to be another triumph for Bong Joon-ho, and I simply cannot wait to see where his next adventure will take us.


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