Movie Review: Okja (2017)
Cast: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Music: Jaeil Jung
So, when I heard that Okja was not celebrated at Cannes Film Festival (Oh, it has a Netflix tag) we were as much surprised as sorry for them. Because this is the kind of movie that we need more often, at liberal intervals, to show a mirror to the skewed power of humans over other beings, to be able to witness how the world will be deprived of all the love and to be able to observe how power hungry, wealthy businessmen do not look beyond the gold that can be offered. In fact, to testify how human greed will dispossess the world of its innocence- Okja is a reminder that we must stop now!
The story begins where Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) establishes to the press (and the world) how her multi-national company has discovered (in reality, genetically engineered) a pig-like creature that they have bred and sent to 26 countries to be raised by local farmers over a span of 10 years. One such Superpig is raised by 14 year old Mija ( Ahn Seo-hyun) with her grandfather in the picturesque mountains of South Korea. The creature called Okja is a companion, pet, friend, sibling, confidante, savior and parent all rolled into one for Mija. She feeds Okja, cleans her teeth, whispers secrets in her ears and sleeps with her. The animal is massive with her body like a baby elephant and mannerisms like a dog. Her life seems to be going good until Mija is told by her grandfather that the swine is to be taken away to New York as it is the property of the multi-national company led by Nancy Mirando.
There is a contract Mija has no idea about where Okja is to be displayed, commoditised and eventually slaughtered for consumption but she does not seem to be consoled by her grandfather’s gift- a golden pig. When Mija realizes that her friend Okja has been carried away by the previously famous zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) to New York for a pageant where Okja is to be exhibited, she sets out to bring Okja back. Her single-minded resolve brings her from South Korea to New York where she is reunited with her pet. Along the way she encounters the ALF (Animal Liberation Foundation) who are supposed to rescue caged animals, but with their own skewed agenda and mismanaged intent, they fail her as well. Anyhow, before Mija can take Okja back home, she has to witness the heart wrenching, gut churning display of how animals are slaughtered and converted for consumption. As much as the young girl is scarred, we as audience experience the abysmal shape of the world we have fostered for our benefits.
The director Bong Joon-ho manages to create a believable animal in Okja, of course, where CGI has played its part beautifully but never for once does the inanimate puppet seem unbelievable. The close shots of the animal’s eyes are beautiful and they seem to be speaking and understanding and explaining more than we can fathom. Though some of the sub-plots seem confusing and mismatched, yet the overall treatment is effective. The loopholes could have been filled by brilliant acting but some of the characters were half-polished like that of Dr. Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhall), who seems more clowning than convincing. His on-screen diminishing popularity and the way it has affected him to be trapped in the madcap corporation lacked the empathy that it required. Also, Jay (Paul Dano) the leader of ALF had limited premise to establish the conviction of his ambition. Lucy/Nancy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) emerges as the most hated character but her eccentricity is not full blown and therefore, she remains just ‘a villain’ and may not be remembered for the character that she is made out to be.
In spite of all its flaws, the movie wins. And the credit goes to the skillful, expressive, endearing and brave performance of Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). The young actress makes a full-on attempt to display her affection and trust not just to Okja but to the script as well. The action/chase/heist sequence she is a part of in South Korea is beautifully shot and wonderfully captured, with John Denver’s “You fill up my senses” in the background. Therefore, a simple chase scene raises itself to the life purpose of the little girl. Her performance in the climax is commendable, where her simple one liner “I want to buy Okja, alive”, sums up this beautifully ruthless saga. We know she is going to go home safe and happy…and a little grown up. Because, in spite of what she has witnessed, she is willing to adopt another creature because she can. Now, that’s brave!
This is a story of mutual trust, between a human and an animal. That the movie aspires to fashion a similar trust between humans and how important that really is to sustain the world is how this one must be received. Okja’s escape does not guarantee that the slaughterhouses will shut shop but its is a message that killing is not justified, even if it’s just a voiceless animal. Here’s a peek into what must be expected: