By Jim Slotek
(Not forever, you understand, but it’s the thought that counts).
Anyone who was introduced to the South Korean filmmaker’s work by his quirky, breath-through monster movie The Host knows that Bong is quite capable of juggling light and dark, seamlessly mixing overpowering sentiment with scabrous satire.
But in Okja, he swings for the fences, creating either the most darkly-adult children’s movie you’ve ever seen, or the most child-like adult one, while taking down agri-business (and not letting animal-rights activists off the hook either).
The movie – which is simultaneously debuting on Netflix this week and, for theatre-experience fans, screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox – sets up its premise with the opening declaration by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) the heiress to a Monsanto-like agri-corp. Her company would be developing (not genetically engineering, you understand) an eco-friendly “superpig” that would feed the world. Just give us 10 years.
Current Bong muse Swinton (Snowpiercer), who also plays her own enemy/twin-sister, is being duplicitous, of course. But her declaration takes us a decade later to the mountains in South Korea, where Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her hippo-sized pal Okja cavort freely and flirt with injury in the most spectacular scenery. Okja is smarter than the average pig (using her wits to save her human’s life at one point) and indeed eco-friendly (her feces are released with violent force as biodegradable bullet-like pellets – and don’t think that plot-point doesn’t come into play later).
But time is up. Lucy and Mirando Corp is calling in their super-pigs worldwide for a massive PR event in New York to demonstrate what they’ve accomplished. (This is the only plot-point where Okja lost me. I understand the desire by a Monsanto to humanize its operations to the public, but getting the public to fall in love with a herd of cute behemoths seems counterintuitive to the task of convincing it to eat them).
Mija proves to be no ordinary guardian of a giant porker. She follows Okja like a super-hero, and is befriended and manipulated by members of the Animal Liberation Front (whose leader, played by Paul Dano, proves somewhat hypocritical about his claims to non-violence).
Not sure why Jake Gyllenhaal is along, hamming it up attrociously as a sometime TV journalist on the Mirando payroll (and dressed, for some reason, like a ‘70s porn producer).
Almost everything about this movie could go wrong, and yet it all fits – with a last act ray of hope in a scene that quite frankly evokes genocide and concentration camps.
South Korean filmmakers in general seem to operate with the kind of creative abandon that Hollywood abandoned after the ‘70s. And Bong Joon-ho continues to be one of the most intriguing and entertaining.
Okra. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Seo-Hyun Ahn and Tilda Swinton. Opens Wednesday, June 28 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and on Netflix.
Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.