Joon-ho Bong, director of the recently premiered Okja on Netflix and the dystopian sci-fi film from 2014, Snowpiercer, is preoccupied, at least at the outset, on what we consume as a society. Snowpiercer has a large focus put on the gelatin bars that the riders of the post-apocalyptic train are forced to eat. The reveal of what those bars are is meant to be a critique of a dystopian society and the struggle for survival.
In his most recent film, the auteur is now tackling the mass conglomeration of the meat packing industry. It isn’t a new critique, but Joon-ho infuses enough of his bizarre comic sensibility and his unique brand of sentimentality to differentiate it from other films of its ilk. Joon-ho frames his story around the relationship between a young girl, Mija (Seoy-Hyun Ahn) and her genetically modified superpig Okja. Okja is one of several pigs given to farmers by the Mirando Corporation (think Amazon+Whole Foods+TMZ) as part of a contest that is meant to highlight the majesty of the elephantine anomalies and cover up the corporate dealings at the heart of their business ventures.
Okja, undoubtedly, wins the competition and is thrust into an international spotlight that her owner, a naïve farm girl from South Korea, isn’t fully equipped to handle. Okja is taken from the farm to make the voyage to New York for the crowing of the “Best Superpig,” and Mija sets out on a quest to bring Okja back home.
The whole idea of the contest is invented by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) as a way to put a more humanistic touch on the Mirando Corporation, which seems to have been run in the past even more unethically than it currently is. While Lucy Mirando may be one of the villains, Swinton plays her as being more of a cog in a larger machine. Mirando is at the heart of an unwieldy corporation that she is unable to truly handle. She becomes a puppet for those around her. The face of the contest is Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is a Steve Irwin style animal activist taken to the extreme. Wilcox may love animals, but he has fallen from popularity and will gladly take the extra money to exploit these superpigs.
I am traditionally a believer in Gyllenhaal. I think he has become a truly great actor and often brings a genuine intensity to his roles. However, his performance here highlights the fundamental flaw with Okja. Gyllenhaal is truly going for something here. I can’t fault the actor his efforts because he brings a true lack of vanity to this part that is wholly admirable. I think that the problem may rest in the hands of Joon-ho. Gyllenhaal is in a completely different movie. From scene to scene the audience is never able to gauge where our sympathies with him should lie. He is over the top and comically befuddling in one scene, and then in the next, Joon-ho wants us to sympathize with him.
The third strand of this plot centers on the Animal Liberation Front, think PETA for peaceful eco-terrorist, and their desire to expose the Mirando Corporation for their misdeeds. The ALF, as they are referred to, is a very precise cell that is led by Jay (Paul Dano), and they live by a credo that Dano’s character is dead set on following.
All three of these plot strands inevitably collide with each other. One’s patience with this film will vary depending on how much you are able to tolerate the wild tonal shifts. There is a tender tale about a girl and her pet at the center of this story, but the emotions are hard to feel because of the film’s artifice. In one moment Okja is pooping out of the back of a truck to keep the bad guys at bay, and then a few minutes later we are sitting in a corporate meeting about how to fix a major company debacle dealing with the unethical dealings of a massive company.
The film could have been a straight down the line message picture saying that the act of eating meat is an ethically dubious choice to make, but the film makes the central question more complicated than that. Everyone, except for Mija, has something to gain out of Okja. The Animal Liberation Front needs to use Okja to bring light to their issues by exploiting this creature, which makes them complicit in some way to the horrors that eventually happen, while the Mirando Corporation, at the end of the day, is merely trying to make a buck.
I do commend Joon-ho’s evenhandedness in the film. There is only one hero, which is Mija. In a different film, Paul Dano’s character would emerge as the true hero, but Joon-ho trusts his audience a little more than that. As well acted as this film is, I think Dano stands above the rest. He is the performer that balances these wild tonal shifts with deftness. If there is emotion to be mined in the story, he is the focal point of it. Swinton is also very good, but the script abandons her in the last third. For the second year in a row though, we do get to see Tilda Swinton playing sisters in a film (she also played sisters in last year’s Hail Caesar).
While Okja may be rendered to pull at the heartstrings, the actual formal construction of the character is wildly inconsistent. Okja is made to look like a cross between a basset hound and a pig. The massive floppy ears and droopy eyes are meant to maximize our empathy for her. But, the actual implementation of the creature into the environments is too inconsistent. There are moments of Okja that are stunning, but there are others that lack a fundamental reality. The variance reminded me a lot of the first Blu-ray released for E.T. Spielberg went back and spliced together CGI footage of E.T. and the puppetry work from the original. The back and forth of the techniques struck a discordant note that was hard in comparison to the original.
Joon-ho is an endlessly talented director and this is the first time I have felt distanced from his work. The story’s construction and the manner in which Joon-ho wants to have his cake and eat it too make this a frustrating and ultimately sporadically successful work. This will likely be his most widely seen film to date, but it lacks the deftly handled tonal shifts of his best works such as Mother or Memories of Murder. I have no doubts that Joon-ho will return with another fascinating film that I connect with. Until then, I will marvel at this true oddity, while staying unable to truly connect with it.