Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Oddity of "Okja"

"Okja" is the latest from South Korea's Bong Joon-ho, more notorious for being one of Netflix's experiments in film disruptive models of film distribution than the actual content of the movie.  Bong has always been hit-or-miss for me, and I'm sad to say that this is one of the misses.  He has a fun idea here with some potential, following the adventures of a genetically engineered super-pig and his human best friend.  However, the end result is such a weird mishmash of tones and clashing cultures, I got very little enjoyment out of it.  

I think a big part of the problem is Okja himself, a lumbering CGI critter who is beloved by his caretaker Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), and is targeted by the evil Mirando Corporation, who technically own him and want to turn him into a mascot for their new line of super-meats.  There's nothing particularly interesting about Okja, aside from him being the size of an elephant and resembling a hippo more than a pig.  Mija isn't much better, a brave little moppet who goes out into the great big world to rescue her friend, but frequently seems like she's just going through the motions of a typical action adventure film.

I wonder if Okja and Mija would have worked better in a different kind of project, a more stylized, more humorous, more obviously allegorical fable aimed at younger audiences.  Instead, we have a lot of familiar western actors playing villains and side characters who come off as desperately wacky instead of the larger-than-life caricatures they were probably meant to be.  For instance, there's Tilda Swinton as Mirando CEO Lucy Mirando, who has built up this big facade as a loveable corporate leader, trying to cover up her nefarious plans and massive insecurity.  Or there's Jake Gyllenhaal's celebrity zoologist Johnny Wilcox, a smarmy TV personality who has sold out to Mirando.  Paul Dano, Steve Yeun, and Lily Collins show up as vigilante animal rights activists, while Shirley Henderson and Giancarlo Esposito play terribly underutilized Mirando underlings.    

So clearly, there's no shortage of talent here.  The trouble is that none of the characters are very well developed, and the story doesn't have much going on thematically.  We're supposed to be sickened by the abuses of Okja by Mirando and the food processing system, but there's almost no emotional weight to anything that goes on because we don't really care about Okja.  Mirando tries to turn Mija into a prop for their meat-shilling event, while the animal activists want her help to expose their wrongdoing, but the stakes aren't particularly well established.  It's fun to watch Mija get into the middle of these big chase sequences, but she's such a single-minded little trooper, she never seems swayed by the arguments of either side, and there's no suspense about her ever getting hurt or being tempted away from helping Okja.  And when the big adventure ends, it doesn't feel particularly satisfying.    

The best thing I can say about the movie is that it certainly looks nice.  The character animation of Okja is great.  The art design is a lot of fun at times, and the production values are very strong.  I got a few amusing moments out of Tilda Swinton's performance because I find it difficult to dislike Tilda Swinton in anything.  However, nothing else about "Okja" worked for me.  It didn't come off as fun or whimsical, the humor completely fell flat, and it certainly didn't work as a satire or serious critical piece.  The worldbuilding, which was the saving grace of "Snowpiercer," feels incomplete.  At most, "Okja" is a bit of action-adventure fluff with some tacked-on anti-corporate messages that are unbearably stale.      

This is the film that comes the closest to Bong's "The Host," which was his breakout creature feature, but it strikes me as one of his weakest.  "Okja" likely  would have been better if it had been done smaller scale, took more time for the ideas to percolate, and didn't have so many expectations heaped on it.  Many of the little extras that the Netflix money allowed for just felt distracting - and I hope that Netflix keeps that in mind for their future projects.  As for Bong Joon-ho,  I think it may be time to take a break from fantasy and get back in touch with his darker side.


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