[Herald Review] ‘Okja,’ a tale with a lot of heart and hurt

By Rumy Doo

Wry satire meets near-magical adventure in Bong’s latest creature feature

  • Published : Jun 13, 2017 - 16:38
  • Updated : Jun 14, 2017 - 15:35
Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” is a delightful coming-of-age story that centers on the warmth between living beings. But the way its little heroine Mija, a free spirit with a big heart, comes to terms with the world is perhaps more brutal and realistic than any crime-ridden thriller.

The film begins as the head of a multinational food and research conglomerate, Lucy Mirando, played by Tilda Swinton, announces the discovery of stunning super pigs in the wilderness of Chile.

Some 20 of these amazing creatures, which possess remarkable physical capabilities and intelligence, leave a minimal carbon footprint on the planet and whose meat tastes “f---ing good,” according to Lucy, are distributed to farmers around the world.

After being bred separately for 10 years, the most superior pigs are to be showcased at the Best Super-pig Contest in New York City, she announces. One of the pigs, Okja, ends up in a remote mountainside in Korea where Mija, portrayed with earthy wholesomeness by Ahn Seo-hyun, 13 lives with her grandfather, a farmer.

The beginning part of the film establishes the bond between girl and pig, which needs to hold strong as the story’s core. Forming the backdrop of Okja and Mija’s blissful existence, rarely have the Korean mountains seemed so picturesque, nor the hand-to-mouth farmer life so quaint.

The hippo-like pig Okja is brought to life with computer graphics -- it is very big but very gentle (and frequently gassy), plodding along the mountains eating persimmons and napping on its back while Mija snoozes on its belly. 

Ahn Seo-hyun stars in “Okja.” (NEW)

Okja’s stay with Mija’s family eventually comes to an end as Dr. Johnny Wilcox, the face of Mirando Corp., comes to retrieve the creature. Okja, the most remarkable among the super pigs, will be taken to Seoul and shipped to New York to be paraded as the biggest success of the company’s campaign. Jake Gyllenhaal embodies the self-absorbed, deranged has-been zoologist Johnny, who claims to have genuinely loved animals at one point but is now a desperate TV personality.

It is revealed that Mija’s grandfather, played by Byun Hee-bong, had attempted to buy Okja through installment payments to Mirando. The response he received was that the pig was unavailable for purchase; with the refunded money, he instead buys a solid gold pig figurine which he gives to Mija.

Gold cannot satisfy the girl, however, who is devastated when she discovers that Okja has been taken away. With a fanny pack on her hips, some coins she has saved up and her golden pig, she embarks on a quest to Seoul in search of her friend and pet.

This is where the adventure portion of the film begins and where it also begins to straddle the realm of satire in a careful balance of humor and critique. The fearless Mija arrives in Seoul and literally stampedes through the glass doors of Mirando Corp. She manages to track down the truck hauling Okja and a gripping car chase in a tunnel ensues. On the way, Mija discovers that another group is after Okja: the Animal Liberation Front, a masked gang of radical activists, led by Jay (Paul Dano) and including K (Steven Yeun) and Red (Lily Collins), who seek to free animals from captivity and slaughterhouses. The group seeks to expose Mirando’s heinous crimes and asks Mija to help them.

Tilda Swinton stars in “Okja.” (NEW)

The film boasts a crowded cast, but manages to keep its focus on Mija and Okja. The characters all add flavor to the story -- from Kim (Choi Woo-sik), who stars as a foul-mouthed, part-time truck driver, to Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito), an expressionless top associate of Mirando.

What follows is the exposure of Mirando’s deeply disturbing practices. The insight underlying the film’s exhilarating run toward the end is that those who inflict harm on others, those who manifest evil, and those who have managed to claw their way to the top are damaged people. Having been more hurt than others, they pass on that pain to others and create the order of the world. In the end, Mija and Okja also become victims. The question is whether these two can heal, instead of inflicting more pain on the world.

Much controversy continues to surround Bong’s latest creature feature. Its backer Netflix’s decision to release the film simultaneously in cinemas and online on its streaming platform has caused an uproar among cinema purists, who argue that films belong first on the big screen. Korea’s largest cinema chain CGV announced its boycott last week. Lotte Cinema and Megabox are still deliberating whether they will go ahead with the Korea release, slated for June 29.

“Okja” is definitely a film worth seeing on the big screen, with dynamic chase sequences and deliberate cinematography by Darius Khondji. The music score, created by Jemma Burns and Jung Jae-il, also deserves a listen on big stereos. One thing is certain: Bong has spun a tale with a lot of heart and hurt.

While multiplexes are shunning the film, some 100 independent theaters throughout Korea have agreed to screen “Okja,” its Korean distributor Next Entertainment World said Monday. Tickets can be reserved prior to its opening at seven theaters -- the Daehan Cinema, Seoul Cinema, Cheongju SFX Cinema, Incheon Aekwan Theater, Daegu Mangyeonggwan, Jeonju Cinema Town and Busan Cinema Center.

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)