Friday, August 4, 2017

Brief thoughts on Okja.

Okja, when we first meet her in her title movie, roams around her countryside home without a care in the world. A spectacular, genetically modified "Super-Pig" who's been bred solely for the purpose of being killed for food at a mature age, Okja is a precious and innocent being of nature, that were the corporations trying to get hold of her were to have their way, would warp and mangle into a viciously mutated and marketable product. But maybe Okja is representative of more than just food, as seen through writer/director Bong Joon-Ho's eyes in his latest film from Netflix.

First and foremost, and to it's genuine credit, Okja is very much a tale of great friendship and innocence, owing a debt to Miyazaki and Spielberg-esque unlikely friends pairings as shown through the titular creature, and her human caretaker Mija. The film thrives from this central friendship between the two, allowing us to bond with the two via their charming and naturally progressed moments of playfulness and teamwork, as well as the almost psychic connection of heart and mind they share. Despite being a heavily CGI character (and not always convincing, though this is forgivable), Okja still feels like a truly breathing creature, an infectious and lovable gentle giant that feels like the Elliot to Mija's Pete, the latter of whom (played by impressive newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun) carries much of the film with her determination and similarly innocent demeanor, and giving an extraordinary conviction to the material as she goes in search of her animal friend. It's a bond born out of genuine wonderment and awe, never once making us feel as if this central bond is unbelievable, and perhaps may even be better than the film deserves.

There's a purity to their bond, one that the Mirando Corporation (headed by Tilda Swinton) would love to exploit to push their agenda, but this exploitation of that adorable image for food seems to be speaking for more than just animal rights. It seems as if Joon-Ho has also set his sights on the Hollywood scene, especially the blockbuster and studio corporations twisting the cinema into their own mutated and warped mess, and the quick and easy shortcuts which they take to ensure their profits are up, even if their creativity suffers for it. It's also a little amusing that Joon-Ho would also make jabs at his own Netflix backing, taking direct shots at practices like their foreign language translations. It's all quite ambitious material for him to tackle for what seemed to be a simple adventure...

Unfortunately, it's also ambition that backfires on him, as he relays those issues to the viewer with almost tremendous condescension. Joon-Ho's world is built in what is intended to be a satirical takedown of corporate shortcuts and questionable practices, but hammers in that thematic meditation and black comedy with relentless force, to the point that he almost becomes as preachy as those animal rights groups he ironically somewhat mocks here.

But what's the greatest issue of Okja is the fact that it has an almost non-existent tone. At first glance, it appears like a typical kid and her strange animal friend adventure, but has to counteract the sequences of innocence and over the top zany comedy, with heavily dark sequences whose thematic undertones give way to alarming brutality. (Also, I'm never one to harp on a movie for its swearing, but the movie could almost have been rated PG were much of it eliminated.) The second half is where the film reaches some especially shocking moments that would have hit hard, were they not already tainted by an earlier reliance on poop jokes that makes it seem like the film doesn't know what audience it's aiming for. Not that these two sides couldn't have been matched together seamlessly, and perhaps with some clever editing and rewriting could have made for a great family film, but is aimless at keeping everything consistent, unaware of how to ease between the sides, and just leaping headfirst with total whiplash.

Case in point being Jake Gyllenhaal's awful, cartoonish turn as a TV zoologist acting as the Mirando Corporation's face. Gyllenhaal has proven himself to be a reliable method actor in recent years, and in more assured hands, his flamboyant and squeaky-voiced attention hog, who looks as if he's stepped out of a Weird Al video, could have made for a charming and darkly humorous addition. Unfortunately, whether it be his fault or Joon-Ho's, he approaches the material with obnoxious and grating abandon, single-handedly derailing scenes with his annoying demeanor, and even in scenes where he's intended to work against his own image and act intimidating come across as unearned and pathetic. It's the single most cringeworthy element of the film, though one certainly could keep their eyes peeled for Tilda Swinton, here in a double role as this half-formed caricature of corporate leadership, and Paul Dano's animal rights group leader, whom the film seems to imply darker layers beneath his surface, before completely balking at the chance to expand on them.

It's enough to make me feel bad for how I feel about Okja. Considering the huge franchising and cinematic universe copycatting infesting the film world at this point, I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see a film take risks and form a truly original story. But that alone isn't enough to cut it for me. I've said it before, and I'll say it again; no matter how original your story is, it ultimately doesn't matter if the execution of said story isn't good. Certainly give the film a watch to give it some support, but know I recommend it more for what it represents than what it actually is.

**1/2 / *****

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