October 11, 2017 -- On the surface of it, this dramatic sci-fi comedy seems to be just another anti-technological, pro vegetarian, pro animal rights romp, but it is really at its heart a story about a young farmer girl's devotion to her anthropomorphic, genetically-engineered pig. It is sort of a cross between “Babe” and “Soylent Green.”
Writer-director Bong Joon Ho (Joon-ho Bong) has dabbled in science gone wrong stories before, such as in “Snowpiercer,” but in “Okja,” the story is more personal and emotionally accessible, while the science, as in Snowpiercer, is still more metaphorical than accurate.
The heroine of this story is young Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) who has raised her giant, intelligent, genetically engineered pig, Okja, since it was young. Her grandfather, who has raised the orphan Mija, tells her that he has bought Okja, even though it is not for sale. On the day the Mirando Corporation comes to claim Okja, which is their property, Mija's grandfather reveals to her that he has instead bought her a golden pig in anticipation of her future marriage.
Mija immediately leaves for Seoul, hoping to get Okja back. She relentlessly pursues the representatives of the Mirando Corporation as they transport Okja back to New York City for a ceremony involving the unveiling of a new line of meat products, made from animals like Okja. It turns out that Mija raising Okja was part of an elaborate ruse to deceive the public about the genetic modification of Okja and 25 other cloned animals sent to farms around the world as part of a promotional Super Pig competition.
In Seoul, Okja is captured by Animal Liberation Front activists, led by Jay (Paul Dano of “Looper”) who tell Mija the truth about the Mirando Corporation's genetic experiments with Okja and the other creatures like her. The Animal Liberation Front's plan is to plant a bug on Okja and allow the Mirando Corporation to recapture her. This will allow the animal rights group to document what goes on at the Mirando Corporation's top secret lab in New Jersey. They plan to tell the public what they find out and thus kill the market for the company's meat products.
Of course the plan goes awry, since the Animal Liberation Front people, while brave and well-intentioned, are amusingly inept, but then so are the Mirando Corporation people, the police and everyone else in this caper. Lucy Mirando (played by Tilda Swinton of “Snowpiercer”) is the crazed daughter of the crazed founder of the Mirando Corporation. Her crazy twin sister, Nancy (also played by Tilda Swinton) is plotting to oust her sister as head of the company.
With all of these comic characters (except for the deadly serious Mija) engaged in bungled attempts to either kill or rescue Okja, the film is a comedy of errors. On the other hand, the film paints a very dark picture of genetically modified foods, corporations and food production in general. The opposition of liberals to genetically modified foods (as far as the safety of eating such “Frankenfoods” is concerned) is even more scientifically unfounded than human caused climate change denial by conservatives.
One of the most overtly comic characters in the movie is reality TV star and Mirando Corporation employee Dr. Johnny Wilcox (played by Jake Gyllenhaal of “Nightcrawler”). This character seems to be loosely based on the late reality TV star Steve Irwin. Wilcox is a very strange character indeed, and a barely recognizable Gyllenhaal plays him to the hilt. Giancarlo Esposito is very effective in his role as the duplicitous Mirando Corporation executive Frank Dawson. Seo-Hyun Ahn, who plays Mija, is the beating heart of this film. The performances in the film are very strong.
The computer animation used to create Okja herself is impressive. The genetic engineering used to create Okja is far beyond that of contemporary science. Okja is something of a miracle. She displays an almost human level of intelligence, including advanced problem-solving abilities. Okja also has some human-like emotions. She seems able to communicate on an almost human level with Mija. Okja seems to be depicted in such a way as to increase audience revulsion to the idea of slaughtering Okja for food. This is the Soylent Green aspect of the story.
This is certainly an entertaining film with something to say about the human condition, as well as contemporary political and scientific issues. It is definitely weird, but more grounded than some of Bong Joon Ho's other films, which are sometimes quite surreal. This film rates a B.
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