Review: Okja (2017)


Okja (2017)

Directed by: Joon-ho Bong | 118 minutes | action, adventure, drama, science fiction | Actors: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Hee-Bong Byun, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Je-mun Yun, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo-sik Choi, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal

Cannes in May: the place to be for international filmmakers to show their latest film to a large audience during the prestigious film festival and have a chance to win the Golden Palm. 2017 brought the festival some criticism because of the screening of two Netflix films that subsequently did not appear on the big screen but only on Netflix (a bit of a shame for non-subscribers). For ‘Okja’, South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho has been given plenty of space by the streaming service to let his imaginary and brilliant mind run wild. The booing – when seeing the Netflix logo – (fortunately) soon makes way for the touching grunting sounds of Okja.

“We needed a miracle and then we got one”. Lucy Mirando (Swinton), CEO of the Mirando Corporation, thinks he has found the environmentally friendly solution to the global food problem and introduces the arrival of “super piglets”, a gift from Mother Nature if we are to believe Lucy, during an exuberant press conference. Farmers from all over the world have been given the task of taking good care of these pigs. In order not to lose sight of the ten-year project and to keep it all ‘tasty’ commercial, there is a competition involved and eventually the most perfect pig will be crowned live in front of massive audiences in New York City. A marketing stunt at its best.

Unlike Lucy and the people, the viewer doesn’t have to wait ten years to see with their own eyes what has become of raising a genetically modified piglet. Okja grows up, together with the teenage girl Mija (Seo Hyun-Anh), in the beautiful green mountain environment of Korea. Okja is now the size of a hippo and visibly and playfully enjoys all the freedom. The high level of cuddliness, her loyalty, the sometimes somewhat clumsy but funny actions and the cheerfully swishing tail ensure that you quickly develop a soft spot for this big friendly giantess. The loving relationship between Okja and Mija is endearing. However, the carefree life and close bond between the two is disrupted when the team at Mirando Corporation, led by zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal), dropping by to take Okja. An unexpected and unacceptable loss for Mija, which leads to a compelling chase, a race against time.

Thanks to Joon-Ho’s careful direction, almost every scene evokes a different emotion. ‘Okja’ brings a smile to the face, provides some tension, moves several times, but above all it has material to think about. The acting is sometimes a bit exaggerated, but fits perfectly within the often circus-like setting that the director has undoubtedly deliberately chosen. While Lucy Mirando is convincingly portrayed as a selfish and vain (circus) director by Swinton, Gyllenhaal has exchanged his serious roles to play the clown – almost literally – as a zoologist in ‘Okja’. In addition, the pig-pink hues in clothing and make-up refer to the subject of the film in a nuanced way.

But most credits go to Erik-Jan de Boer, a homegrown digital film animator. De Boer made a major contribution with his tiger creation in ‘Life of Pi’ (2012), which earned him an Academy Award for “best visual effects”. A true-to-life representation of an existing animal is one thing, but creating the appearance of a fanciful creature in a very realistic way is simply a gift. As the director also points out, De Boer has provided Okja with human feelings. The look in the eyes, the sounds, the skin and all the movements are so detailed and subtle that it completely adds to Okja’s credibility and emotions. Okja is a gigantic pig but at the same time resembles a (bizarrely large) dog, with the effect that the recognition of and sympathy for the valuable bond between humans and animals and animals becomes even greater.

Animal lover or not. (The rock-solid message in) ‘Okja’ is brutally good.

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