The South Korean movement into western cinema has seen some of the greatest films in recent years. Revered genius Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy, Thirst, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance) set the scene with Stoker in 2013, with Jee-woon Kim in charge of the less impressive Schwarzenegger action movie The Last Stand after his native I Saw The Devil, A Bittersweet Life, and A Tale of Two Sisters. And now Joon-ho Bong, with Memories of Murder and Korean monster movie The Host under his belt, has made his second feature in Hollywood with Okja, having already directed the underrated masterpiece in Snowpiercer.
Netflix Original Okja proves that Joon-ho Bong is one of the greatest filmmakers, let alone South Korean filmmakers, currently working in cinema today. With visual mastery, Bong weaves a stellar cast into a highly emotive analogous movie with a message and important themes. Controversial company Mirando (sounds suspiciously like Monsanto) has developed a superpig, a genetically modified animal bred to feed the world with a lessened carbon footprint. Twenty-six of the best-looking superpigs are sent all over the globe in a covert competition to rear the prize pig, ready for the big announcement and their arrival onto the market.
For ten years, Mija has lived with, cared for and become attached to Okja, the prettiest pig of them all, believing that her grandfather has bought Okja from Mirando. Within the opening sequences, it is revealed just how intelligent these genetically modified pigs are, adding a deeper moral and ethical conundrum atop of the already morally debatable farming industry in regards to animal welfare and the hugely negative effect that the large-scale farming industry is having on the planet.
The fear of genetic modification is prevalent, a phobia many seem to harbour nowadays. The GMO label scares people. It’s unnatural. But so are most medicines. However, the fungus that takes control of the brains of ants and turns them into horrific statuettes is natural. ‘Natural’ is not synonymous with ‘good’, likewise with ‘unnatural’ and ‘bad’. GMO plants mean that certain genetic elements that helps a potato survive in Ireland can help another plant thrive in areas they could not before.
Genetically modifying animals, however, is on another moral level entirely. Okja plays with the insistence in which the human race demands meat, regardless of the strong correlations to many major health issues and the detriment such a notion has on the planet. I’m not donning an Eco-Warrior hat here either, it is undeniable fact, which one must look at with as much objectivity as humanly possible. Making the fictitious animals highly intelligent, emotive creatures that are going to be slaughtered regardless pokes fun at our thirst for animal flesh in the face of polluted rivers and oceans from run-off, methane production, and the sheer amount of water used by the farming industry. As our population steadily grows, Okja satires the consumerist way in which we would demand more, rather than cutting down or out.
This is not the first time that Bong has used a film to satirize elements of human society. Snowpiercer is not just about a train hurting through a cold, apocalyptic wasteland, instead, each carriage represents various social classes, with the weak and impoverished kept in containment at the back, eventually escaping and seeing how the other half live. Starring Chris Evans, Snowpiercer is definitely a film to check out, the heroic line ‘I know that babies taste best’ still haunts me somewhat even now.
Okja features three of the greatest actors currently in work. Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhall and Tilda Swinton thrive in their given performances as the animal rights activist, quirky animal television show presenter and a CEO living in her family’s shadow respectively. This trio is great in everything they take part in, and are no strangers to taking on difficult, demanding or varying roles, constantly changing up their characters. As Animal Liberation Front leader Jay, Dano commits to the heroic, non-violent role. As drunken, narcissistic Zoologist Johnny Wilcox, Gyllenhall offers a hilariously eccentric performance, emitting a voice that wavers in pitch for some real comical moments. Tilda Swinton plays both twin sisters of the Mirando family, one an optimistic, emotional wreck and the other a stern ass hat. If not for the stunning visuals, the emotive story and the important message, Okja is worth watching just to witness these three actors steal every scene, with cameos from Gus of Breaking Bad and Glenn from The Walking Dead, eyeballs fully in place.
The tone of Okja is what is truly amazing, tackling important themes with masterful creativity. The bond between Mija and Okja is heartwarming as all hell, marking the moment when Okja is taken away more heart wrenching than I, as a grown adult, looking at a CGI superpig, would care to admit. The idealistic scenes in the beginning of the film transition as Mija and the Animal Liberation Front (AFL) fight to save Okja and highlight the cruelty being committed to these animals in underground laboratories, ranging from violent behaviour towards the beasts to mutated piglets, mangled by whatever trials had to take place prior. However, as we’ve come to witness in South Korean movies, even those as grim as I Saw The Devil or The Chaser, there is much in the way of gallows humour to be found throughout the two-hour long movie, alongside some genuine, laugh-out-loud moments of comic relief. Not random quips you expect from a Marvel movie, but a bona fide laughs are to be had, which are much welcome as the film nears its gripping, moving conclusion.
With this moving, metaphorical tale with strong morals at its core, excellent performances from a stellar cast, stunning cinematography coupled with an awesome soundtrack and a few quick, deserved jabs at Capitalism and consumerist culture, the dystopian, intelligently produced Okja stands as one of the best films of the year, up there with Hacksaw Ridge, John Wick 2, Collosal, Get Out, and Logan.
The Film Fanatic