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OKJA is a Masterful Blend of Sweet, Salty, and Satirical (Review)

OKJA is a Masterful Blend of Sweet, Salty, and Satirical (Review)

Genre fans will of course know Bong Joon-ho from the consistently intense Memories of Murder (2003), the wonderfully weird The Host (2006), the subtly disturbing Mother (2009), and the twisted sci-fi masterpiece Snowpiercer (2013) — and if you don’t know these films yet, well, you’re in for a good time someday. The masterful Korean filmmaker is back with yet another colorfully weird genre cocktail that runs the spectrum from sincere to cynical, from pastoral to trenchant, and from innocent to unpleasant with a remarkable deal of confidence.

Okja is many things at once, and that’s part of what makes it so damn entertaining. At its heart, Okja is an adventure story about a young girl from South Korea who travels to New York City to rescue her beloved (and very large) pet from an evil corporation. But Okja (from an original screenplay by Bong Joon Ho and co-writer Jon Ronson) is also a scathing indictment of corporate culture, an obvious cry for attention regarding animal rights, a pointed poke in the ribs at self-important activists, and a smart, insightful, challenging sci-fi story about the nature of human consumption.

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That Okja is a very good film is no surprise, given the director’s track record and the amazing team surrounding him; that it tackles and more than capably nails at least a half-dozen genres, concepts, ideas, and themes–some of which are intentionally contradictory–is cause for much excitement. At one point the film is a clear and obvious statement on behalf of vegetarianism and animal rights; later on it also addresses the fact that, hey, it’s a big planet, and people have to eat. Best of all, the film doesn’t make any judgments. The “heroic” activists are both well-intentioned and oddly naive. The corporate suits are predictably selfish but do serve a key purpose in modern society. The only thing in the film that’s pure is the fiercely loyal friendship between a mutated “superpig” called Okja and a wildly resourceful young girl named Mija.

Professional force of nature Tilda Swinton plays Lucy Mirando, the shallow and image-obsessed CEO of a global mega-corporation that invents the massive “superpig” to help combat hunger the world over. But unfortunately it’s a ten-year wait between superpiglet and viable superpig, which means that lovable Okja (who looks like a cross between a pig, a hippo, and a puppy) will enjoy a childhood in South Korea with only Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her grandfather (Byun Heebong) as companions. But when the nefarious Mirando executives arrive to reclaim their prize pig, the intrusion kickstarts a chain of events that involves all sorts of weird and unpredictable people.

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In addition to the consistently great An Seo Hyun and the perpetually amusing Tilda Swinton, the Okja ensemble is stuffed with fun treats: Paul Dano as the leader of an activist group who sure seems like a noble guy, save for that dark twinkle in his eye; Steven Yeun and Lily Collins play two of his squad-members who seem to have their own agendas; Giancarlo Esposito is an ominous, inscrutable executive, and Shirley Henderson a hilarious sycophant; Yoon Je Moon is a company man with misguided loyalties; and a very kooky Jake Gyllenhaal plays a former animal expert-turned-corporate stooge. There’s not a weak link in the entire ensemble (Devon Bostick and Dan Henshall are also a hoot as two of the militantly non-violent activists) and, much like with Snowpiercer, this shows off the director’s great skill with big, eclectic ensemble casts.

Taken as a family movie with a slightly darker edge; a loving parody of “animal adventure” stories, or an earnest and powerful statement about the way in which we treat the “lesser” creatures of the world, there’s no denying that Okja is something special. It may make you feel happy, sad, excited, dejected, angry, and hopeful… all at the same time, and that’s a pretty rare feat for one movie to pull off. To me it feels like 1/3 Spielberg, 1/3 Gilliam, and 1/3 completely novel, exciting originality. Plus it’s gorgeous to look at, the kid is great, and Okja herself is a beautiful, fascinating beast.

Rating: 5 Mirando Superburritos out of 5!

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Images: Netflix

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