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Okja - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

I don't think Bong Joon Ho has any particular message with his movies, although it may be easy to assume he does. He just likes to play with contemporary trends and fears and the places they intersect. He did it with his Korean answer to Godzilla in 2007's The Host, and he did it with even greater nuance -- and hilarity -- in 2013's post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer.

Now, Okja continues his trend of reliably weird and fun movies, which are surprisingly consistent in quality. That is, their refreshing oddness finds a way to compensate for things like clunky dialogue, which seems also to be a hallmark of his. He makes other kinds of movies too, but he seems to have a thing for these types of would-be blockbusters that could be big in South Korea and other parts of the world, but have little potential for huge success in the U.S. I am here, however, to let you know that these movies are worth seeing.

In this story, Bon Joon Ho takes on GMO foods -- "Okja" is the name of one of a couple dozen "super pigs" genetically engineered and sent to all different remote locations around the world to be raised on farms according to local customs. The opening scene features Tilda Swinton (also featured in Snowpiercer) as the CEO of a biotech company announcing the "Best Super Pig Contest" in 2007, and letting everyone know the winner will be revealed in ten years. (Commentary by the reporters in attendance indicates very early on that Okja is often rather funny.)

Cut to ten years later, and we meet the little girl named Mija (a wonderful Seo-Hyun Ahn), who has lived with this "super pig" all her life. She lives in a very remote, lush, mountain-top village with her grandfather, who has been raising both her and Ojka all this time. Okja runs around the tree-covered hills with Mija. They even sleep and cuddle together. For a brief period, just watching the two of them hanging out in the Korean mountain forest, it feels a little like Bong Joon Ho's answer to Peter's Dragon. Except instead of a magic dragon, it's a creature literally referred to as a "magic pig." And this creature was ultimately bred for slaughter. So this movie is a lot darker than Pete's Dragon.

That does beg the question: does this qualify as a kids' movie? It often feels like it, but I would say not. It has a fair share of profanity, and much more importantly, at least one extended sequence in a slaughterhouse that would definitely be disturbing to younger kids. Older kids, depending on their sensibilities, might be able to take it. That said, in the end I'd say it's a film for adult, which conscientiously subverts some of the conventions of family entertainment.

Because after those rather serene early scenes on the South Korean mountaintop farm, the corporation that gave them Okja come back to reclaim her -- and the whole of the story involves Mija chasing after her to get her back. She goes first to Seoul, where there is a fantastic chase sequence involving the giant creature in an underground mall, and then to New York City, where Swinton's Lucy Mirando, of MirandoCorp, dupes Mija into taking part in a "reunion" in an attempt at reversing the Seoul incident's bad publicity.

Along the way, Okja goes to some rather dark places. It also goes to some very funny places. It's always entertaining, and only occasionally genuinely horrifying. All of these things are amplified by the design of the creature that is Okja herself. She looks like what you might imagine by the result of cross-breeding a happy, floppy-eared dog and a hippo. She's definitely the color of a hippo, so even though these animals are constantly referred to as pigs, and a Manhattan parade celebrating them features people dressed in very conventional-looking pig accessories (noses and ears and such), they really don't look anything at all like what you imagine when picturing pigs.

There's also an almost shocking number of familiar actors for a movie of this nature -- a half South Korean, half American production. Snowpiercer had even more recognizable American actors in it, but aside from Tilda Swinton being in both, this one has Jake Gyllenhaal as a washed up TV animal doctor now the hired "face" of MirandoCorp; Paul Dano as the leader of the Animal Liberation Front bent on rescuing Okja; and Shirley Henderson (probably best known as Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter series) as one of Lucy's corporate lackeys. Incidentally, Giancarlo Esposito, who plays Lucy's right-hand man, was also featured in last year's The Jungle Book, as the voice of the wolf Akela.

Gyllenhaal, for his part, gives an exaggerated, fey performance as the self-involved TV star, which falls just short of seeming self-conscious, and still manages to make him nearly unrecognizable. Bong Joon Ho has a thing for making well known stars all but disappear in roles. (When it comes to Tilda Swinton, of course, that's kind of her thing already, in all her movies.) Paul Dano is the least altered here, and there's nearly a meta commentary on that fact when his face is revealed after his Animal Liberation Front ski mask is removed. There then follows a rough monologue explaining the ALF's intentions that serves as some pretty forced exposition. Dano is usually excellent in everything, but even he struggles a bit here.

That would be Okja's lowest point, however, and it's really not all that low. The rest of it is by turns delightful and jarring in its weirdness, which is what you can expect from a Bong Joon Ho feature. This movie is unique in another way, in that although it is getting a very limited theatrical release in New York, Los Angeles and Korea on its release date, the rest of us can see it streaming on Netflix June 28. For Seattle locals, that means streaming is the only option -- and I don't usually review such movies. I'm offering the review of this one on a technicality: I review all new films I see in a theatre that have any kind of theatrical release, and I did see an advanced screening of this in a theatre. It's too bad the rest of you won't get to, because I'm certain it would be better that way. Not by too wide a margin, though -- if you think this might be your kind of movie, you won't be disappointed when you fire up your Netflix accounts on June 28.

Seo-Hyun Ahn shares some screen time with the 'super pig' OKJA.

Overall: B+
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