"Our plan is to expose Mirando, rescue Okja, and bring her back to you."
It has been over a decade since Bong Joon-ho burst onto the international filmmaking scene with 2006’s ‘The Host’. In fact he was recognised as a major talent before that with the superb ‘Memories of Murder’, but I bring up ‘The Host’ due to the fact that his latest directorial effort, ‘Okja’ marks a return to a monster genre hybrid intended to make big social statements. However, ‘Okja’ is a very different kind of monster movie, but no less interesting.
The Mirando Corporation, headed by its CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) launch a project to breed a new species of “Superpigs” in an effort to combat world hunger. Young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) lives one of the farms that has spent ten years raising one of these animals and forms an unbreakable bond with one of the pigs which she has named Okja. But when the corporation retruns to claim their product, Mija sets out on a rescue mission.
So the premise of ‘Okja’ alone signals that what awaits us in Bong Joon-ho’s next film is another mix of social statements and genre filmmaking as we saw in ‘The Host’ and ‘Snowpiercer’. Though there are a lot of ideals within ‘Okja’ the main commentary it wants to offer seems to centre on capitalism and its dual persona. On the one hand lies the public friendly face of the system that encourages success from those who can achieve it, whilst also addressing the darker side of corporate management that oppresses those who are not fortunate enough to lie at the top. Its satirical undertones and social undertones are obvious right from the start, but what is more surprising is how it blends this biting commentary with moments of genuine poignancy.
At least, it does for a good amount of its runtime that is. On the positive side of things ‘Okja’ most definitely makes an effort to convey a personal story as well as its broader social statements. While those two goals sometimes feel conflicted with one another the movie makes them each feel involved with one another rather than making one aspect feel like an obligation. Though it does lead to some tonal consistency in which the film feels as if it’s caught awkwardly between full blown slapstick satire and poignant character moments, it navigates them easily enough.
On a directorial level, ‘Okja’ is another example of how skilled Bong Joon-ho is behind the camera, his prowess for impeccable framing and perfect framing is obvious in every scene of this film, with each shot becoming a stunningly crafted portrait. It’s Joon-ho’s attention to detail and visual storytelling that makes the tonal shifts feel less prevalent and compensates for the films structural issues and pacing. Like the tonal shifts these are not huge problems but the film feels somewhat repetitive and slow as it ploughs on. Though it builds to a powerful conclusion the road to get there isn’t the most efficient, and even the finale is a little undermined by the fact that we have already witnessed the films central message.
That being said, what helps make the movie more engaging is its supremely talented cast. Tilda Swinton creates and eerily dethatched nature to the CEO of the Mirando Corporation, as well as a manufactured sweetness that you can tell is fake before her true self is even revealed, marking her as the personification of Joon-ho’s portrait of capitalist greed. What I loved about her character though is how the story allowed for her to have actual depth, instead of just being a vehicle to convey a message Swinton’s character is given a real motivation for her personality. Paul Dano and Steven Yuen are also very well cast in their roles, as is Ahn Seo-hyun who is burdened with a lot of the story’s emotional weight. While Jake Gyllenhaal does appear to be in a different movie to everyone else his character is immensely watchable, being another character that wears two faces for the sake of covering up a more self-interested motivation.
While there are times that ‘Okja’ risks being more of a message than a film it usually redeems itself by injecting a sense of emotional involvement into proceedings. As I said before Joon-ho’s own talents as a filmmaker continually shine through on a technical level, with his CGI creations feeling like fully realised and weighty presences within the world he creates. His intricate use of the camera allows us to see the titular animal in several different environments without breaking the illusion of it being a real creature with real properties. He directs the film with a sense of urgency when it requires it but also a sense of patience when he wants us to observe the little details that add emotional weight to the scenario. It’s ambitious in design but intimate in execution.
Though it’s tonal juggling act is sometimes hard to follow, ‘Okja’ tells a compelling story executed with skilled filmmaking prowess.