Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ahn Seo-hyun, Paul Dano
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Running Time: 120 mins
Okja is an American/South Korean film about a young girl who does everything to prevent Okja, a kind-hearted and enormous pig, from being kidnapped by a multinational corporation that intends to use the animal as food.
While this film manages to tug at your heartstrings in some places, it really doesn’t offer up the same enthralling drama in others. Okja provides an interesting premise, and one that pretty much anyone can understand easily, but it often gets a little muddled in how to present that premise most effectively, both thinking a little too highly of itself while simultaneously cheapening some drama in exchange for more light-hearted sequences, making for a frustrating watch throughout.
However, before we get into that, let’s start on the positive side. As I said, the premise here is both an interesting one and a simple one. It’s the story of big business vs. human emotions, and it’s one that you can easily get engrossed in from the beginning. In effect taking cues from the likes of King Kong, the film charms you with the wonderful relationship between the young girl and the gentle giant, and is able to at least get you on the side of not wanting to see the superpig being turned into meat, making the central part of the film’s plot engaging throughout.
Also, the special effects that bring Okja, the ‘miracle pig’, to life, are very impressive. Although they’re not quite at the levels of The Jungle Book or otherwise, they are consistently convincing, and bring to life a very bizarre animal in an even more bizarre situation, with some of the sequences in which we see Okja running through built-up areas, or even seeing her and the young girl embracing, feel as real as possible.
So, if the film’s objective is to get you on side and care for a large CGI pig, then Okja is a great success. However, there’s a little more to it, and unfortunately the film doesn’t quite manage to go that extra mile to making the more dramatic and serious story work as well.
As I said, the plot is a simple and interesting one, but the core message that the film tries to put across doesn’t work in the same way. Unfortunately, whether it be due to its heroising on a group of somewhat questionable activists, the message about animal rights comes off as a little preachy, something that’s a real shame when it is a genuine issue that should really hit you hard.
However, the film’s slightly preachy nature throughout means you feel a little detached from the core of the story, and ultimately only end up empathising on a human level with the young girl and Okja, rather than the wider scope of all animals in the face of big corporations, which was a real frustration for me.
On the other hand, while the film seems to think a little too much of itself in preaching this message, it also falls down when it comes to its slightly muddled atmosphere. As I’ve said, the pure, human relationship between the young girl and Okja is riveting, but the rest of the film can’t really decide how serious it wants to be about its story, often swinging wildly between strong attacks on those who abuse animals to numerous underwhelming and often unfunny ‘comedy’ sequences to lighten the tension, something that continued to confuse me throughout, and definitely didn’t help to engross me more in the film’s main message.
Finally, we come to the performances, which are a real mixed bag. On the one hand, you have the likes of Tilda Swinton, who is as gloriously mad as ever on screen, putting in a brilliant show that makes her the perfect villain as the head of the corporation that aims to exploit Okja. What’s more is the performance from Ahn Seo-hyun, who is both honest and brilliantly likable from the start in her role as the young girl, while she also impresses hugely when it comes to some very physical and large-scale sequences that play a big role in the centre of the film.
On the other hand, there are some performances that are just neutral, including a disappointing turn from Paul Dano as the head of the animal rights activists, and an almost unnoticeable show from Lily Collins as another activist. And then you have Jake Gyllenhaal, who puts in what must be the love it-or-hate it performance of the year, as a painfully hyperactive wildlife show presenter who plays a part in Okja’s exploitation. It’s a striking performance, but definitely not in the right ways, and knowing Gyllenhaal’s incredible talent for nuanced and thrilling performances, seeing him scream his way through a movie for two hours was really disappointing to see.
Overall, I wasn’t hugely impressed by Okja, as it fails to register as the genuinely powerful and thought-provoking drama that it wants to be, instead only succeeding in delivering a cute central relationship between human and animal that feels little different to King Kong, Babe or Free Willy, and that’s why I’m giving this a 7.2.