Visionary South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho delivers another funny, whimsical and decidedly dark adult fantasy.
By Nick Milligan
Although he’s been described by Quentin Tarantino as “like Spielberg in his prime”, South Korean writer-director Bong Joon Ho is something of a quiet achiever on the global movie stage. To Western audiences, and even moderate movie buffs, he’s not a household name. But he will be.
His 2006 monster movie The Host, a dark Korean-language comedy in which a mutant creature emerges from Seoul’s Han River and runs amok, received strong reviews and placed him on some cinephile radars, but that very entertaining movie remains at cult status. His English-language debut, the hugely impressive Snowpiercer of 2014, confirmed him as a true visionary director. That tense film, with its harrowing Dystopian set-up and bloody assessment of class structure, deserved far better global success, despite more than doubling its $40m budget.
Director Bong’s latest work, Okja, will be screened exclusively on Netflix and, despite the streaming giant’s distribution method embroiling the film in controversy at Cannes this year, this off-beat fantasy for adults should see the filmmaker gain the wider recognition he deserves.
Okja is named after its central non-human character, a gentle and giant creature known as a “super-pig”. A global food company called the Mirando Corporation, run by oddball CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), has discovered this new species of livestock. To generate publicity for this potentially very profitable and sustainable foodstuff, Mirando creates an ambitious competition in which farmers around the globe will be sent a super-piglet and given 10 years to raise it. The farmer that breeds the biggest super-pig will be crowned champion at a lavish parade in New York City. The competition will be judged by the commercial face of Mirando, a popular TV animal lover called Dr. Johnny Wilcox (a wildly animated Jake Gyllenhaal).
One of the superpiglets was given to elderly farmer Hee-bong (Bong Joon Ho regular Byun Hee-bong), who lives high in the picturesque mountains of Korea. Hee-bong is also raising his orphaned granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun). Mija was four years old when Okja came to their farm, and the now 14-year-old girl and 10-year-old Okja are inseparable friends. Mija is not aware that Okja is destined for slaughter once Mirando’s competition is over.
Recent lacklustre efforts like Mindhorn and War Machine have given cause for apprehension about future Netflix Originals. But they’ve allowed this South Korean virtuoso the space to accomplish his utterly unique vision and the pay-off is immense.
Much to Mija’s dismay, Okja is reclaimed by the Mirando Corporation and the farmgirl embarks on a brave quest to save her. She gains the unexpected assistance of the Animal Liberation Front, a group of well-resourced environmental activists. They include eloquent leader Jay (Paul Dano), and Red (Lily Collins), K (The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun), and Blond (Australia’s Daniel Henshall).
It’s difficult not to be struck by the fierce originality of Director Bong’s new movie and it’s certainly the best original film to which Netflix have put their name. Recent lacklustre efforts like Mindhorn and War Machine have given cause for apprehension about future Netflix Originals. But they’ve allowed this South Korean virtuoso the space to accomplish his utterly unique vision and the pay-off is immense.
This is a whimsical film made for adults and, despite Okja’s loveable appearance, should not be shown to children. Take away the playful F-bombs and you are still left with a movie that descends into troubling territory, especially when the horrors of mass animal meat production are explored. Parents, take note. But the director’s sense of adventure and cinematic wonder are present in a number of key set pieces, including Okja’s daring rescue of Mija early in the film and a sequence in which Okja flees into an underground department store – much chaos ensues. The entire movie is punctuated by thrilling moments.
But mature audiences should respond to Director Bong’s unusual approach to humour, which is a bold mix of cutting dialogue and heightened slapstick. Okja’s fairytale atmosphere echoes of Miyazaki’s animations, but there’s a sensibility at work that quickly subverts any sweetness to be derived from the cute premise. One moment in particular, in which Okja first arrives at a secret laboratory, is especially unsettling, quickly vaporising the light-hearted nature of much of the film until that point.
While some might dismiss Okja as a heavy handed commentary on the barbarism of slaughtering intelligent animals for food production – Director Bong has stated his fondness for pigs as dignified animals – there’s much more at work here than a simple statement on ethics. But it’s true that environmental consequences have permeated the filmmaker’s last three movies. Snowpiercer depicted a particularly bleak future world of perpetual snowstorms and societal collapse, and the creature in The Host is a mutation that’s resulted from the dumping of military grade formaldehyde. Okja moves into a hot-button ethical debate, the revelation of which would be spoiling a plot twist.
Director Bong is served by a fine cast. Swinton, who memorably appeared in Snowpiercer, is again at her comic best. Gyllenhaal’s loony doctor breaks into whacky physical comedy reminiscent of Jim Carrey – he’s hilarious. Dano brings his reliable deadpan charm and his team of activists are all on their A-game. It’s particular great to see Oz’s Henshall, whose truly traumatising performance in Snowtown brought him to Director Bong’s attention, given screen-time in a major movie. Okja too, despite being an unusual CG creation that takes some getting used to on screen (it’s an otherworldly mix of pig and hippopotamus), has a personality of her own and we certainly feel her pain as the situation unfolds.
Tarantino’s comparison of Bong Joon Ho to Spielberg is certainly flattering, but the parallel somewhat cuts the former’s talents short. What the South Korean auteur is offering in modern movies is a fresh voice; one that’s intelligent, funny, empathetic and willing to venture into territory that his Western peers might not dare to tread.
Okja premieres June 28 on Netflix.