Okja, one of Netflix’s first Asian co-productions, isn’t just a clash of cultures: it’s a clash of tones, performances, music and visuals. On the one hand, there’s a family-friendly ‘girl and her giant pig’ story, complete with pooping animals toilet humor. Then there are the liberally used, gratuitous even, f-bombs, and the disturbing scientific experimentation body horror, and the blockbuster chase scenes and action set pieces. And that’s without mentioning the extended scenes of… PR meetings? The result is a very strange viewing experience and it becomes difficult to get swept up in this bizarre story.
Mirando, a huge multi-national corporation, are looking to singlehandedly solve the food crisis and they plan on doing this with a genetically engineered breed of eco-friendly, and delicious, “super pigs” (although they look more like hippos). As a publicity stunt, they send 26 of these pigs out across the world to find out which culture’s farming techniques will produce the biggest and best animals.
It turns out that the South Korean sample tops the list, thanks to the love and care shown by its owner Heebong (Byun Hee-Bong) and his young granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun). So when Mirando turns up to take their prize pig back to the States ready for the grand unveiling, Mija is determined to rescue her friend. She isn’t the only one after Okja and it isn’t long until a mysterious group of animal rights activists throw a spanner in the works.
For such an impressive cast, the performances are a mixed bag. Jake Gyllenhaal is cartoonishly broad as the Mirando Corporation’s Steve Irwin-like celebrity spokesperson and Tilda Swinton is also uncharacteristically lacking in what should have been a juicy role as the two Mirando sisters at the head of the company. Those who get to play it down (even slightly) are better served; notably Paul Dano, as the leader of the activist group, and Giancarlo Esposito, as one of Mirando’s advisers.
Ahn is also good and her relationship with Okja provides the driving force of the film. The CGI work is strong for the most part. The way Mija interacts with her companion (napping on its belly and stroking its ears) makes the effects work feel tactile. This is aided by some lovely touches in its behavior. The effects teams have clearly thought about which animals inspired each facet of Okja’s physicality and personality and they’ve created a unique and entertaining new creature.
Bong seems unashamed of Okja’s message movie feel. He co-wrote the film with British author Jon Ronson, whose work (“The Men Who Stare at Goats” and “The Psychopath Test”) is known for displaying an off-kilter sensibility. Ronson’s also a vegetarian and one can imagine he is the source of much of the film’s meat-free sentiment. It’s rather heavy-handed, but at least the message is being framed in a lighthearted (for the most part) adventure film.
It’s a good job that Netflix got behind Okja because I just can’t see it making much of a mark theatrically. The frequent Korean dialogue, the jumble of tones and the lack of a clear demographic don’t exactly make it the easiest of sells. Truth be told, there’s so much going on here – so many different elements being juggled – it would have been something of a miracle had Bong pulled it off. But, in the end, he just doesn’t quite succeed.