Film Review: Okja

Bong Joon Ho turns in another masterpiece in this complex, arresting futuristic adventure.
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There’s no ice age or train or baby cannibalism (that’s cannibalism of babies, not cannibalism by babies) in Bong Joon Ho’s Okja, but all the same you can consider it a sequel of sorts to his 2015 post-apocalyptic masterpiece Snowpiercer. The two films, though vastly different in setting, story, even genre, boast a compelling mix of hopefulness and fatalism, wacky comedy and grim reality, that makes Bong one of the most distinctive directors working today.

In Snowpiercer, the catastrophe that consigned the world to eternal winter was an attempt to solve global warming. In Okja, the Mirando Corporation wants to solve world hunger—which is where a strain of genetically modified “superpigs,” including our star Okja, comes in. For a decade, Okja’s been entrusted to the care of young Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her elderly farmer grandfather, part of a PR campaign dreamed up by Mirando to endear humankind to their new source of nutrition. When Okja’s summoned back to her makers, Mija embarks on a madcap adventure to rescue her beloved friend.

On the surface, Okja could be read as a screed against GMOs or (more accurately) against the meat industry and its cruel treatment of animals. But that’s only one layer. As in Snowpiercer and The Host, Bong presents a dangerous world where people at all stages on the moral spectrum just have to do their best to survive. (In those two movies, more often than not, they don’t.) There are no easy victories or pat solutions. (Again: The terrible situations people find themselves in in Ojka and Snowpiercer are caused by attempts to do good that went disastrously awry, though with Mirando Corp. it’s clear that profit is the overriding concern.) In Snowpiercer, reluctant revolutionary Curtis (Chris Evans) eventually overthrows his oppressors, in the process destroying the fragile ecosystem that keeps the last vestiges of humanity alive. In Okja…well, no spoilers, but suffice to say it goes to much darker places than your typical “boy and dog” (“girl and dog,” here) movie.

As morally and emotionally complex as Okja is, it’s still a damn fun movie. There’s slapstick comedy in abundance, notably in a second-act sequence where Mija meets members of the Animal Liberation Front, led by Jay (Paul Dano), whose determination not to harm humans results in him and his cohorts fighting with BBs and umbrellas. Snowpiercer alum Tilda Swinton is back in fine scenery-gnashing form as lead antagonist Lucy Mirando. It’s hard not to see shades of the family Trump in her portrayal of a pathologically narcissistic CEO left psychologically scarred by her late father, a ruthless businessman who would lob insults like “idiot loser” at her. Sad! Later, Lucy’s sister, the profit-obsessed Nancy, joylessly intones, “We do deals, and these are the deals we do.”

Going toe-to-toe with Swinton is Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a TV personality and the public face of Mirando. Unhinged and clearly having the time of his life, Gyllenhaal screeches his way through lines like “Half-wit degenerate fucktards!” like Steve Irwin mixed with Pee-wee Herman on crack. It’s a performance that makes Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending look sedate, and I mean that in the best possible way.

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