Korean Director’s Bong Joon-ho returns with Okja

Okja (Netflix, NR) Directed by Bong Joon-ho Written by Jon Ronson and Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho has now joined a group of filmmakers and showrunners who are going with Netflix for the production and distribution of their newest projects. His is the tale of a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) who lives in the mountains of rural Korea with her grandfather and the titular Okja, a genetically modified “superpig” that looks like a cross between a hog and a mutt, and is comparable in size to an SUV. Okja’s species was manufactured ten years before the film’s version of present-day by the Miranda Corporation for the purposes of harvesting their meat to address a projected food shortage. The company is led by the frantic and image-conscious Lucy Miranda (Tilda Swinton, in a performance that proves her to be one of Bong Joon-ho’s best collaborators) who is puppeteered by her cadre of manipulative and infantilizing advisors. When Okja is taken by the Miranda Corporation to be harvested with the other superpigs, Mija resolves to rescue her friend, finding help from a group of eccentric animalrights activists led by Jay (Paul Dano), who share her convictions but executes them on a much larger and riskier scale.

In many ways, the Netflix involvement is a good thing, but there are also a few unwanted side effects. Bong Joon-ho’s films are very popular on the streaming site, especially his last film,
Snowpiercer, which garnered him his widest American audience to date. Consequently, it seems we now have a reliable and consistent distributor for his works in the States, and he certainly
deserves the international spotlight. He’s one of the few uniformly good and original working directors today, and among my personal favorites. His style is unique in that it is rich, stark, and
very tonally specific (mostly in how he balances drama and humor) while also visually adept and efficient in a way that only a brass-tacks director with a complete handle on film grammar could
achieve. In that sense, Okja feels very much like a Bong Joon-Ho film, and yet it carries the vague but unmistakable stench of the overly-manufactured, user-data- led pandering that is the
Netflix business model. The result is an over-saturation of the director’s trademarks, making Okja a successful “Bong Joon-ho movie”, but only a partially successful, you know, movie.

Among the many things that stand out in a Joon-ho movie is a humorously exaggerated buffoon character. Sometimes this can be the protagonist, or a foil, or a villain. Tilda Swinton has been
this character in both of her collaborations with him. However, it seems there needed to be another animated and bizarre personality to supplement this. That’s what leads me to believe that the movie’s concept was tampered with by Netflix meddling. I imagine executives sitting in a room saying “our viewers like those crazy characters in Joon-ho’s movies. Let’s make them all
like that, and even CRAZIER!” This unnecessary goof is Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a TV wildlife personality who is in cahoots with the Miranda Corporation. For this performance, Gyllenhaal,
normally a huge bonus for me in any film, screeches his lines with modulating pitch while wearing his Ace Ventura costume from last Halloween. While horribly embarrassing to watch, it
also feels like a corruption of Bong Joon-ho’s voice. This and other elements of his work are elevated to the point of being grotesque. I really don’t know for sure, at the end of the day, but
my gut tells me this was all the result of algorithms guiding the pre-production, warping and mutating from what was probably a flawless story and script (which was co-written with Bong
Joon-ho by the marvelously good journalist and author, Jon Ronson).

That isn’t to say the movie isn’t worth watching. For all the flack I’m giving it, I actually enjoyed the whole thing quite a bit. Definitely the most light-hearted of the director’s oeuvre,
Okja feels like his attempt at a kid’s movie that never falls into saccharine levels of affect or sugarcoats the darkness in its themes. Ahn Seo-hyun, the thirteen-year- old-actress who plays
Mija gives what can fairly be described as a perfect performance. Everything about her character from concept to display seems authentic and original. For once, I feel like a movie went for the tomboy vibe and actually succeeded, because both the actress and the character channel their beauty from a place of inner-pathos and determination, not from superficial features.

So despite feeling like the film got bogged down by a process that was meant to lift it up, Okja is still a helluva lot better than most films in theaters. Everything I love, and that you may love,
about Bong Joon-ho’s movies is in there in hearty amounts. His filmic touch is too strong to be smothered by capitalist appeasement.

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