Okja (2017) Review
My Neighbor Okja
With world hunger reaching an all-time high, the Mirando Corporation steps in to create super piglets; giant animals that look like a hippopotamus and a manatee somehow crossbred. The super piglets are smarter than the average animal, are easy to care for, don’t eat much, and even produce less waste. Most of all, they’re designed to be delicious. The downside is they take ten years to fully develop, but 26 are chosen and sent to different caregivers all over the globe. After the decade mark, they compete to see who the best of the best is to be paraded around by Mirando before being turned into jerky while an idiotic television host named Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes a big deal about it.
In the mountains of South Korea, Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) has cared for her super piglet Okja for the past ten years. They have become the best of friends, but the day comes when Mirando arrives to take Okja back to New York to be processed into food. Mija decides she’ll do whatever it takes to bring Okja home even if it means joining up with a dangerous animal activist group known as the Animal Liberation Front (or ALF).
You feel compassion for Okja as soon as you see her. You can tell that Mija really loves her and that while Okja is technically a pet, she’s also an integral part of the family. The bond between a young girl and a giant animal is the heart and soul of the picture. A touching and caring relationship is what makes you feel for the two of them when they get ripped apart and your heart sinks when it seems like they won’t ever be reunited.
What’s interesting about Okja is that there are three different perspectives portrayed in the film: Mirando’s, Mija’s, and ALF’s. Mirando just wants what is their property to follow through with what these creatures were created for, Mija wants to take Okja back home to continue being a family, and ALF doesn’t want to see any animal or living creature harmed in any way by uncaring corporate businesses like Mirando. The viewer is able to see each of these viewpoints throughout the course of the film, understand them, and see why each option could benefit by calling the shots with Okja.
The South Korean-American film is labeled as an action adventure, but it’s more of a drama that shares more in common with Well Go USA’s The Tiger over anything else. Over the course of two hours, you feel for this helpless animal and have the desire for things to end well for her, but between the intention of chopping her up into cuts of meat, separating her from the family she loves, and throwing her into a place she’s never been before there’s danger around every corner and the outcome feels bleak. The chase sequences through the city and into the subway are intensely thrilling, but the rest of the time you just feel sorry for Okja and hope for her well-being.
Most of the cast, including The Walking Dead’s Steven Yuen, Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, and Paul Dano (Prisoners, Looper) are mostly one-dimensional characters that serve a single purpose and don’t leave lasting impressions, which is unfortunate since they’re all fantastic actors. But it's also required of them since more involved performances would likely take away from the Mija/Okja relationship, which is what makes Okja so wonderful. Tilda Swinton is uncharacteristically upbeat and optimistic as the Mirando Corporation CEO Lucy Mirando. Lucy is self-absorbed and is mostly too infatuated with promoting her own image than running a successful business, but she also seems immature, somewhat carefree, and is obsessed with not being anything like her sister. Jake Gyllenhaal has the most unique performance of the film portraying a TV personality who hosts a show revolving around animals. Johnny Wilcox talks in this deep booming voice on television, but in reality his voice is nasally as he whines about everything. His conceited nature is only outshined by his flamboyance, wild eccentricities, and outrageous behavior.
You connect with and spend the most time with Ahn Seo-Hyun’s Mija. As a female character, Mija is strong, independent, and doesn’t rely on anyone to get what she wants. No obstacle can stand in the way of Mija rescuing Okja, which is incredibly inspiring. She’s irrational at times and has a short fuse, but it’s difficult not to think any of us wouldn’t behave in similar fashion under the same circumstances. She has this intimate nature with Okja that manages to tug at your heartstrings and cause you to root for the two of them to stay united.
Okja is a one of a kind film that is capable of making you feel this wide range of emotions; it’s heartwarming at times, gut-wrenching at others, makes you laugh at its highest points, and has you holding back tears at its darkest moments. Bong Joon-ho’s latest film has shades of My Neighbor Totoro, Pete’s Dragon, and The Iron Giant with a slaughterhouse sequence that will rip the heart from your chest and leave it gushing on the floor. Okja is dark yet lighthearted at the same time. Bong Joon-ho has created something special and incredible that is easily one of the year’s best films.