Like a live-action Studio Ghibli, Okja has tremendous heart, charm and nightmare fuel. Your love of bacon could be threatened.
A young orphaned Korean girl living with her grandfather befriends a colossal new breed of pig that they are raising in the countryside. Little does she know, her grandfather was chosen ten years ago as part of an American corporate scheme to raise the best livestock for a new breed of produce. Naturally, when the time comes that Okja must leave, young Mija goes to rescue the giant friendly beast from its corporate fate.
Yeah, you probably have some idea what this film is about, young girl in the country growing up with a huge friendly animal that’s being bred as cattle for a modern meat-eating society. You would be mostly right.
Directed by Joon-ho Bong, the man being the critically underrated The Host (not the one you are thinking of) and the recent and excellent sci-fi Snowpiercer, Okja has a great sense of humour and awesome directing talent, as well as a very black sense of reality underneath its otherwise comic proceedings. In terms of direction, acting, pacing and technical film-making it is flawless.
The young Seo-Hyn Ahn, playing heroine Mija, is great. While her role does not entail much dialogue she brings some tremendous physical performance, as well as acting beside Okja, something completely computer generated. Shortly after Okja is taken from her, Mija meets a team of radical activists who rescue animals from slaughter and cruelty. The team is tremendous, with Steven Yuen (The Walking Dead) and Paul Dano, bringing a great sense of camaraderie and a mix of drama and comedy.
On the other side is Tilda Swinton (apparently Joon-ho Bong really liked working with her in Snowpiercer!) as the head of the Mirando Corporation, who is crazy but not as insane as Jake Gyllenhaal, the “face” of the Corporation, a stir-crazy has-been.
The film has something of a “live-action Ghibli” vibe, from Okja’s design and the rural Korean countryside that she resides with Mija, to the way the film’s action and set pieces are shot and composed. A frantic dash through a mall, Okja crashing through shops and piles of knick-knacks, Mija barely holding on, and a shot of the activists piling into the back of a moving semi-truck the moment security guys crash through doors after them. The timing and execution of shots is just pleasing to watch.
Of course (and like Ghibli can do sometimes) the film does go to some dark places. While a lot of it is loaded into the final act, and the comedy of the moments dies completely for the stark reality of the dire situation. It is effective and the film as a whole does not labour itself with any perpetual grimness; it reserves it all for the ending.
If you like bacon, you probably won’t be converted to vegan immediately, but you will probably feel bad about it for a day or so.
I was very impressed with Okja, and I highly recommend it for some crazy comedic action, great direction, powerful but grim themes of modern society and colourful acting from familiar faces.
It didn’t get a cinema release after featuring in Festivals such as Cannes, but it is now on Netflix.
Additional Marshmallows: It even features Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul star Giancarlo Esposito!