Film Review: Okja (2017)

Written by Jasper Harris

Talking animal movies have always kind of annoyed me. I don’t mind your classic Disney ‘The Jungle Book’s’ of ‘The Lion King’, but the new ‘live-action’ remakes have had me really disappointed. And don’t get me started on the ‘Babe’s’ of this world. Anytime a film tries to convince me that something that genuinely looks like an actual animal is talking, I almost always end up empathising less than I would have if that character had been more cartoony. 

However, Bong Joon Ho made a really good decision. He, and his creative team, decided to have the character of Okja just be an animal, without being able to talk. They were clearly aiming towards a more mature audience, with the film’s subject matter and age rating, and yet, this potentially coincidental choice was a genius one. I empathise with Okja far more than I would have if she had been able to talk. I feel it’s the innocence associated with something that can’t communicate for itself in any really meaningful way that makes me fully sympathise with something that is unironically referred to in the film as the, ‘World’s Greatest Super Pig.’ 

And when I say that this film is aiming for a ‘more mature audience’, I mean it. There are some fantastically dark things that happen in this film. I won’t go into detail for fear of being kicked off of Spyglass, but know that they really didn’t hold back on the topic of animal rights, forced breeding and factory-farmed produce. It’s all there. And my god is it grim. 

The first half of the film can be summed up by saying that it’s a fun time, and nothing more. There’s a bunch of exposition, the story starts rolling, the potential bad guys are introduced and Tilda Swinton does a great job. All things that we take for granted these days. Okja is cared for by Mija, as part of a Scheme set up by the Mirando Corporation, a scheme that exists for as of yet unclear reasons. Okja is a giant pig-like creature that will supposedly feed millions and cause an end to global famine. But for now, she is an adorable giant, who I don’t think that I, or anyone for that matter, (save my grandad) could possibly imagine eating. 

The first act of the film is nothing but a nice, kid friendly, forty minutes, and nothing more. I’m almost left slightly disappointed that the film offers so little to me in the time given. I enjoyed watching a giant animal galumph around the South Korean mountains, sure, but I always felt like I wanted to get back to the more interesting, ‘Corporations are inherently evil’ stuff. 

Finally, after a very sweaty, and completely insane Jake Gyllenhaal as a has-been kids TV presenter, appears along with his film crew to see Okja, the ball starts rolling. Things happen in quick succession. Okja is taken to Seoul, then to New York. There are animal rights groups involved, and heists, and whatnot. 

I don’t want to spoil it, because it really is a fun time, but until further towards the end of the film, that’s all it ever feels like. I just wish the film gave a bit more than just the last act in terms of any meaningful commentary on any of the topics it is concerned with. Up until the point of Okja’s release, I wouldn’t regard Bong Joon-ho’s films as particularly subtle in their tackling of social issues (his most recent film, ‘Parasite’ being the exception), and ‘Snowpiercer’ in particular stands out as his most heavy handed metaphor. But Okja kind of goes a different route. It doesn’t seem to have anything to say about anything much in particular, and then suddenly, out of almost nowhere, in the final forty minutes decided that it’s going to slam you with one atrocity of the food industry after another, and in doing so, literally leave a bad taste in your mouth. 

So I feel rather conflicted about it, as films go. I don’t know whether to praise it for taking the opposite direction to that which Bong has been criticized for doing in the past, or to criticize it for having a perfect opportunity to have made something with real substance to it, and all but letting it fall by the wayside. 

I mean, apart from this one major criticism, the film is pretty good. It looks nice, it sounds nice, it’s well acted, the characters are likeable, and the direction is, as expected, pretty solid. Ahn Seo-hyun (who plays Mija) is really excellent in her role, especially considering her age, and the fact the main thing she shared scenes with was a couple of men in green suits. 

Speaking of, the CG looks really excellent. Like, really, really excellent. I know I’ve gone on about the positives of doing things practically, and how CG will be the death of ‘real filmmaking’ but here I don’t mind it. Because it serves a purpose. Okja had to be computer generated, or else the film would not work. Full stop. Once of twice characters that interact with her maybe look a little bit like they aren’t anywhere near her. But beyond that, I mean, stellar. Hats off to Method Studios. 

But the takeaway is this. This film is good, but nothing more. And I mean, I like Bong Joon-ho. I really liked Parasite. I just feel that Okja is far from his best. 

About the author

Jasper Harris

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