Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo-hyun, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik-choi, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
Written by: Bong Joon-ho, Jon Ronson, based on a story by Bong Joon-ho
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
MPAA Rating: NR, TV-MA
Language: English, Korean, with English subtitles
Running Time: 118
Date: 06/27/2017

Okja (2017)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Pig Trouble

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In The Host, director Bong Joon-ho created a terrifying monster, a galumphing river beast that kidnapped a young girl. Now, with Okja — which screened at the Cannes Film Festival before premiering as a streaming Netflix original feature — he creates another story about a young girl and her relationship with a giant beast. But this time the beast is friendly and lovable. Both beasts are equally strange and mysterious, and their similarity suggests an interesting theme running through Bong's work.

Meanwhile, Okja is lighter and funnier than Bong's other films, far less scary than The Host, and if not for some dark language and some intense, animal-in-peril situations, it might even be kid-friendly. It begins in 2007 as Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) assumes control of her family's corporation, attempting to put a friendlier face on it than her predecessors did. She introduces a new "super-pig," an eco-friendly beast that could end the problem of world hunger.

There will be a contest, with 26 pigs being shipped to farmers all over the world, to be raised however they see fit. In ten years, whichever pig is the handsomest specimen will be the face of the company. That pig looks to be Okja, raised in rural Korea by 13 year-old Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong). Mija and Okja have a special relationship, and the pig even saves the girl from a fall over a cliff.

Unfortunately, the contest has come due, and Okja is shipped off to Seoul, with Mija in hot pursuit (she's like a pint-sized action hero, swinging and jumping onto the backs of trucks). She receives help from some masked eco-terrorists called the Animal Liberation Front, led by Jay (Paul Dano), and Okja is rescued. But they have hatched a plan to let Okja be re-captured, and then expose the Mirando corporation for its lies and evil deeds.

It's a busy plot, with A-list stars occupying only small corners of it. Lily Collins — who will soon be starring in another Netflix movie — plays another member of the ALF, Shirley Henderson and Giancarlo Esposito play Mirando flunkies, and Swinton has a dual role as her own twin sister. Jake Gyllenhaal, surprisingly, is the most animated he has ever been in his entire career as a showy television host.

All of this requires quite a juggling act, and Bong is largely up for the job. The general playful tone he creates helps a great deal, and the cinematography and editing are appealingly glossy and smooth throughout, both in the kinetic scenes, and in the reflective ones. However, this is somewhat spoiled by the gruesome meat-factory scenes; if you're teetering on the edge of becoming a vegetarian or a vegan, this film could knock you the rest of the way there.

Still, I wonder what Bong is really up to here. In all of his other films (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer, etc.), the characters battle some kind of monster, either a literal one or a figurative one. Yet, in all the films, the actual monster is us, the humans that live on this earth and mess things up. It's the kind of theme tackled by the old Godzilla films, or even in Frankenstein.

Okja may not be very deep, but it's a step above a two-hour bashfest wherein good guys try to beat up bad guys. And it's a rather noble calling, I think. If films have the power to change the world, to make people aware of things and ask questions, then Bong's Okja is right there on the front lines, telling its story with beauty and wisdom.

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