Review: Bong Joon-ho's 'Okja' Starring Seo-Hyun Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Paul Dano

As a director, Bong Joon-ho has never shied away from delivering clear and concise messages in his films. 2013’s Snowpiercer--about class, wealth, and the environment--being one of the primary examples. Okja, his second English-speaking movie, is also fairly blunt to the point that if you missed the message, you’re clearly not paying attention at all. Okja is visually stunning, the cinematography a study in contrasts between nature and the human jungle that is New York City. The film has a clear message, and while it’s certainly commendable and has moments of sheer beauty in its portrayal, it can often be distracting in its on-the-nose execution.

In the not too distant future, Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) lives with her “super pig” named Okja on a farm in South Korea. For ten years, Mija nurtured Okja. But more than simply taking care of him, Okja became Mija’s friend and another member of her family. What she didn’t know was that Okja wasn’t simply a pet and companion, he was also the property of the Mirando corporation. Run by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the company came up with a marketing scheme to help push their eco-friendly, non-genetically modified pigs and turned it into a competition for farmers around the globe. When Okja is taken, Mija is desperate to get him back and is helped (I use this term loosely) along the way by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), run by Jay (Paul Dano).

Artfully directed, with contrasts between the color palette of nature and the dark, gray metallic of a factory, Okja delivers a strong message. It’s clear where Bong Joon-ho stands and in a world where we’re dangerously close to be being run by corporations, it’s hard not to be frazzled by the film’s straightforward and succinct nature. Bong Joon-ho isn’t interested in building characters in a way that would create any sympathy. In fact, the only character worth paying any attention to is Mija, who, as a young girl, has the purest of intentions. She isn’t willing to listen, to bargain, to give up Okja for anything and isn’t distracted by the shiny, but fake, festivities and marketing hoopla surrounding her.

Every other character--whether it’s Swinton’s insecure, but brilliant Lucy, Jake Gyllenhaal’s unhinged Johnny Wilcox, and Dano’s well-meaning opportunistic ALF leader--isn’t there to be understood, but rather despised to some degree. There is no gray area (and in this film wouldn’t have served well), just the purity of a young girl’s heart and the evil lurking just beyond the shadows in the guise of money, greed, and superficiality. To the Mirando corporation, and even the ALF to a degree, the super pig competition is all a game and there is no thought beyond each side getting what they want.

Okja’s direct forthright execution would be commendable if it didn’t feel so over-the-top. There are a few instances that feel like the audience is being spoon-fed the message and it takes one out of the viewing experience. The characters are largely shadows of what they could be. It was more than likely done on purpose, but it’s unfortunate that even Mija doesn’t have any moments of becoming a full-fledged character. Each individual is there to serve only the plot and because of that, Okja can feel detached and void of emotion, much like the inhumane treatment of Okja herself.

The message, while clearly obvious, often feels empty when it should have stirred a deeper sense of justice. Otherwise, it’s just a movie telling us something we already know about animal cruelty, corporations, consumerism, and the like. The film should have felt more powerful--the scenes at the animal farm, coupled with the brutality, being an exception--but unfortunately, Okja is a bit too uneven in its execution. Despite its flaws, though, it’s a technically well-made film, its cinematography gorgeous, and leaves us with a very strong message that’s hard to ignore.

Rating: 3 out of 5