I’d avoided Okja until now, mainly because, while I appreciated Snowpiercer up to a point, I found its on-the-nose political allegory borderline excruciating. And that was quite beside the absence of internal logic in respect of its premise. Okja promised more of the same, and indeed, Bong Joon-ho’s hammer-to-crack-a-nut approach is entirely less than endearing, such that I was frequently prone to wishing a fate worse than sausages on the adorably titular GM porker and be done with her.
But Bong’s a fine filmmaker, if a much more variable writer (here helped out by Jon Ronson, who acquitted himself much more honourably when he previously collaborated with Peter Straughan on Frank), so it would be unlikely that he didn’t come up with something at least fitfully engaging, and Okja’s certainly that. It’s just unfortunate that its humour tends to fall flat, while its message isn’t so much thrust in your face as forced down your throat until you gag on the stream of anti-GM/pro-animal rights/pro-ecology/anti-corporate entreatments (all variably valid positions, but assuming most of the captive audience will be on board anyway, they’re at best patronising and at worst lazily vapid). Added to which, its brand of unabashed sentimentality is particularly galling.
Okja’s a super pig, mystifyingly passed off by the Mirando Corporation as a non-GMO miracle piglet (how, precisely, anyone even remotely believes this is never broached; we have to take it on faith) because the company is acutely aware its product wouldn’t go down well in anti-GM environment.
More mystifyingly, this “answer to hunger” (possibly an intentionally artificial sales pitch, as the only foodstuff we actually see is Super Pig Jerky, but you can never tell with this unfinessed level of satire/farce) has a ten-year growth period before the slaughter. Not very factory-farm efficient, then, particularly when Mirando makes the decision to cull the entire crop (so what, are they going to start from scratch again, waiting another ten years?)
In Bong’s rush to manipulate our emotions, he entirely ignores earlier introduced plot points. Such as: why have Okja impregnated by a super boar – portrayed, rather weirdly, for all that we accept the anthropomorphic tendencies of the picture, as rape – if she’s subsequently going to be slaughtered? And then, at the end, this is forgotten about, as presumably Bong and Ronson didn’t want to associate any offspring with conception against her wishes.
Okja’s major supporter is Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun, giving a winning, spirited performance), who furiously leaves her mountain idyll in hot pursuit, when her non-circumspect grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) hands the beloved porker over to Mirando. She teams up with the dedicated but semi-parodied Animal Liberation Front, led by the patented creepy man-child stylings of Paul Dano’s Jay and including in its ranks Steven Yeu, Lily Collins (I’m guessing she did it for the cause, as she barely registers) and Jay Baruchel-alike Devon Bostick (skipping meals because “He’s still trying to leave the smallest footprint on the planet that he can”).
While being asked to root for Paul Dano doesn’t exactly help a movie, any mixed allegiances are more than compensated for by a – if there’s any justice – career-ending turn from Jake Gyllenhaal as TV zoologist Johnny Wilcox, who has been bought out by Mirando and acts as their spokesperson.
It’s hard to express in words just how horrific Gyllenhaal’s comedy schtick is, except to note there’s good reason he has nothing of note in that genre on his CV (City Slickers doesn’t count). Jake appears to be attempting a performance pitched somewhere between Sharlto Copley and Jim Carrey, but flounders entirely. I mean, yeah, I know we aren’t supposed to like Johnny, but the dead air permeating the picture whenever Gyllenhaal has a scene of over-exerting says something about his comic chops – they’re non-existent.
Not faring all that much better is the usually reliable Tilda Swinton (okay, she’s much better than Gyllenhaal, just not by her standards), who seems to have plumped for the part on the basis that she was only doing twins last year (see also Hail, Caesar!) Neither of whom are particularly interesting, no matter how many dental appliances and nervous ticks she gives them.
Giancarlo Esposito lends a bit of weight as the mastermind behind her CEO/former CEO (Mirando is propped up on nepotism, although I saw nothing otherwise Murdochian about it) while Shirley Henderson, as one of Swinton’s assistants – that is, the assistant of one of the Swintons – is essentially reheating Moaning Myrtle from Harry Potter.
Pulling off this kind of mix of comedy and pathos, sincerity and cynicism (Mija saves the special pig, but the rest are mincemeat), is no easy task, and Bong sadly isn’t up to it. There are moments early on suggestive of more nuance than is settled for: Mija needs to extract an object from Okja’s foot, and it turns out to be a hedgehog the loveably blundering oinker trod on (GM spelling the extinction of natural species?); Mija throws back a tiddler fish as an implicit endorsement of sustainable methods. But generally, Bong’s more interested in slapstick Gyllenhaal mugging, Okja shit (literally), and sloppy plotting (how much was her grandfather paid, such that his gold pig is considered more than valuable enough to ensure Okja is returned to Mija? Surely a big corp would make sure he was rewarded with peanuts?)
Nevertheless, while the characterisation largely sucks, the FX rendering Okja are outstanding, sufficiently photoreal that you don’t doubt she’s there, and imbued with tonnes of heart-tugging personality to boot (Darius Khondji’s photography is also faultless). So much so, it’s almost impossible not to be offended at Ronson and Bong’s manipulation offensive.
Okja’s an odd viewing experience, as if the Farrelly Brothers opted to make an earnest eco-parable. One can’t help feeling, with some judicious pruning, both of tone and F-bombs, this could have been a much more effective, audience-friendly movie, one that sustained its message (albeit, it’s difficult to tell what has gone down well and hit its target demographic with Netflix). And one with Babe-like consequences in terms of inviting identification and empathy. Instead, we got another Snowpiercer (although, at least that didn’t try to be funny), chock full of crude ham – ahem – handedness and boorish in its message and delivery.