Cannes 2017: 'Okja' is a Lovable, Wacky, Animal Rescue Adventure Film
by Alex Billington
May 19, 2017
I've never seen anything like this film before, and we may never see anything like it again. Okja is the latest feature from Korean writer/director Bong Joon Ho, and it's another completely original story from his brilliant mind. Okja is a fascinating mix of many different things: it's anti-capitalism, anti-meat, yet it's also an animal rescue adventure film. It's a satire, yet also a thriller; it's playful, it's weird, but lovable. At the center of it all is the story of a young Korean girl named Mija whose best friend is a big, mutant "super pig" that a corporation gave her uncle to raise for a competition. When they come to take it, she runs off to try and find and bring her home. If this film doesn't make you a vegetarian by the end, I don't know what will.
I confess that I am a huge Bong Joon Ho fan, I love every last one of his films, even Snowpiercer. This one is completely different than anything he has made before, at times feeling like it's made for kids, with playful, quirky sensibilities and bright colors. Of course, the story is about a young Korean girl, played by An Seo Hyun, but there's much more to it than that. And considering Tilda Swinton drops an F-bomb in the opening few minutes of the film, it's definitely not for kids. Swinton plays Lucy Mirando, the blonde-haired, perfect-white-teeth CEO of the Mirando Corporation, which wants to raise these pigs to help solve the food shortage problem. Although it's obvious that they really just want to make more and more money, and all this niceness and showboating is just a facade to keep people from realizing the truth about their factories.
So what is the truth? Isn't it obvious? They run slaughterhouses and are mass producing these "super pigs" just so we can eat delicious pig jerky and "feed the poor". But we already know this is nonsense, because it was covered in films like Fast Food Nation. Okja tries to wrap a playful animal rescue narrative (featuring mutant CGI pigs instead of anything that really exists) around this disgusting truth about where our food comes from. At times it works wonderfully, others times it doesn't. There's an eccentric mix of characters in this, from Swinton's CEO, to Jake Gyllenhaal playing a goofy, high-pitch-voice "animal loving" TV host, to Paul Dano leading a group of animal rights activists who are just as quirky as everyone else in this film. If anything, Okja and Mija are probably the most down-to-earth out of anyone in the film. Which makes sense.
Bong Joon Ho attempts to balance a complicated mix of tones, including satire and wacky comedy, as well as action scenes and the emotions that come with your favorite pet being taken away. No one is safe from being mocked - even the animal rights group, called the Animal Liberation Front (or ALF), is made fun of despite seemingly good intentions. Swinton plays it straight throughout, but clearly she's just incredible at pulling off the perfect performance that Bong Joon Ho has envisioned in order to allow us all to clearly understand how fake and full-of-shit these CEOs are, no matter what they preach about saving their world. And he takes it right to where it needs to go in the final act, not shying away from showing the truth in the real world, which is the key message in Okja. Animal lovers will revel in this, but meat eaters may hate this.
If you loved Disney's Pete's Dragon movie from last year, especially as much as I did, then you'll enjoy this movie as well. There are even nods to Hayao Miyazaki and My Neighbor Totoro, and the Okja character is instantly lovable and completely believable even though she's completely computer-generated. It's a fun film to watch, with the performances from the entire cast being the highlight, no matter how out-there they are. Only someone as daring, innovative and skilled as Bong Joon Ho could come up with and pull off a film like this. It's likely not the film most are expecting, but it's also nothing that deserves to be dismissed. It should be appreciated for all that it teaches: loving animals, rejecting capitalism, and respecting life big and small.
Alex's Cannes 2017 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing