Brendan Da Costa

Okja (2017) Poster

Title: Okja


Directed by: Bong Joon-ho


Written by: Bong Joon-ho & Jon Ronson


Starring: Seo-Hyun Ahn, Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal, , Shirley Henderson, Tilda Swinton, Woo-sik Choi, Steven Yeun


Produced by: Dooho Choi, Dede Gardner, Bong Joon-ho, Lewis Taewan Kim, Jeremy Kleiner, Ted Sarandos & Woo-sik Seo with Tilda Swinton & Sandro Kopp

“Serious

and

satirical.”

Reel Talk - Okja (2017)

December 4, 2021
by Brendan Da Costa

Maybe it’s a two-hour advertisement for veganism. Maybe it’s a plea to end animal cruelty. Maybe it’s a public service announcement about environmentalism and food sustainability… or maybe it’s just a funny and sentimental buddy film. Whatever it is, Okja is distinctly Bong Joon-ho.

 

Comedic and touching, Okja is the story of a young farm girl from the mountains of South Korea who befriends the titular “super pig”—the genetically modified property of the Mirando Corporation.

“[…] a funny and sentimental buddy film.”

Okja is about as PC a film as you’ll ever see. In its two-hour runtime, it manages to touch on everything from multiculturalism and consent to feminism and capitalism. Of course, Okja has plenty to say about the seedier elements of the food supply chain but really nothing to say about the food scarcity that the supply chain attempts to address—it’s as whitewashed as its villain’s sinister plans.

 

But, in true Bong Joon-ho style, this film never takes itself so seriously that it can’t make fun of the gaping holes in its arguments or even the most sanctimonious of its characters. Indeed, writer and director Bong Joon-ho is at his best when he embraces the absurdity of his stories and he manages to do this quite well in Okja. This film is as serious about its content matter as it is satirical.

“[…] this film is as serious about its content matter as it is satirical.”

It creates a tonal dissonance that, as the film clomps through its twists and turns, becomes an increasingly tall order to bring back into harmony. Fortunately for director Bong Joon-ho, some of his cast was more than equal to the challenge… though some were not.

 

Frequent Bong Joon-ho collaborators come out to play with Okja including Tilda Swinton and Woo-sik Choi. Even though the latter’s role is really quite small, both are tremendous in this film. In fact, it is Tilda Swinton’s ability to swing from hysteria to hilarity in a single line that keeps the tone of this film harmonious. There’s a palpable drop in euphony when she isn’t in a scene.

 

Other cast members either were not given the opportunity to find the balance between drama and comedy or struggled to do so. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance was as confused as his character and you could see him chomping at the bit for something meatier to chew on.

 

Darius Khondji’s cinematography is a standout. He manages to find a look for this film that is both whimsical and dramatic in its beauty. It looks like a kid’s film if that kid’s film was an unedited folktale of the Brothers Grimm… albeit that Okja would have ended very differently if that were the case.

“Frequent Bong Joon-ho collaborators come out to play with Okja…”

That the Netflix title card was booed at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival where Okja premiered despite going on to receive a fair amount of praise is testament to the democratization of film—a democratization that Bong, with his unique narrative style, is better positioned than anyone else to see through to fruition.

 

Still, the fact that Bong Joon-ho and one of the film’s producers converted to “temporary vegans” after visiting a slaughterhouse while researching this film is testament to the kind of hypocritical champagne socialism that makes these “movies-with-a-message” so eye-roll inducing for many viewers. But it is also a testament to the fact that Bong Joon-ho didn’t take this film so terribly seriously that he swore off of animal products altogether, indefinitely and for all time… so you don’t have to either.