(Played in Competition for the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival) Directed by Bong Joon-ho and screenplay by Joon-ho and Jon Ronson from a story by Joon-ho, Okja is the story of a young girl who tries to retrieve a massive animal from a corporation that wants to kill it for profit as she’s aided by an animal activist group. The film is an exploration of a young girl whose grandfather raised the animal for farming until this corporation come in to kill it for a big celebration to end world hunger. Starring Ahn Seo-hyun, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Lily Collins, Steven Yeun, Byun Hee-bong, Yoon Je-moon, Devon Bostick, Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Henderson, and Tilda Swinton. Okja is a riveting and whimsical film from Bong Joon-ho.
The film revolves around an environmentalist who becomes the new CEO of a beef manufacturing company as she announces the breeding of a new super-pig where 26 specimens are sent to various places all over the world and to see what would be the outcome of those pigs in 10 years in the hope to end world hunger. Yet, the film is more about the bond between a young girl and a pig living in the mountains in South Korea as the pig Okja is discovered by this corporation hoping to use it for a special presentation and then kill it for profit. It is a film that explores not just animal rights but also a corporate CEO wanting to do something right despite the fact that she’s doing the wrong thing in covering up lies with the aid of a zoologist/TV show host who has become emotionally and mentally unstable. Add a group of animal activists and other corporate interests as this young girl is pulled in different directions over her beloved Okja.
The film’s screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Jon Ronson explore the many complexities of the cattle industry and its war with animal rights activists with this pig in the middle and a young girl in Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) just trying to save it and bring it back home. Still, the characters that Joon-Ho and Ronson create aren’t typical of what is expected as the CEO of the Mirando corporation in Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) is trying to clean up the company’s image and to make it do good despite the fact that she’s covering up lies and remove the troubled legacy that her father and twin sister Nancy have created. The corporate face of the company in zoologist/TV host in Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a wacky eccentric who has become troubled as well as guilt-ridden for the role he’s playing when Mirando makes some drastic decisions. The animal rights activist group known as ALF lead by Jay (Paul Dano) is trying to maintain some dignity in helping Mija but also doesn’t want to lie to her even though one of his fellow activist in K (Steven Yeun) lies in order to get the mission to save Okja when the pig is sent to New York City for this presentation with Mija also being an unwilling participant from the Mirando corporation.
Joon-ho’s direction is quite grand in the way he presents this world of corporate interests and their need to exploit an animal for profit as it is set in New York City and nearby areas as well as Seoul, South Korea and mountains near the city though much of the film is shot in parts of Seoul and Vancouver. The film opens with a scene in a factory where Lucy Mirando is trying to get people to see that her family’s past is going to be removed for a new future as it is presented in grand fashion with wide and medium shots. Still, Joon-ho maintains a simplicity in the scenes set in the mountains with its small ponds, waterfalls, and forests that Mija and Okja like to play in as it is this world of peace while they live with Mija’s grandfather in this simple home though they have access to TV and internet. When Okja is given to the corporation with Mija’s grandfather given a big payout for raising the super-pig, Joon-ho showcases Mija’s determination to retrieve Okja in Seoul as it has these unique tracking shots in some elaborate chase scenes inside a building, an underground mall next to a subway, and in a highway are among these moments where Joon-ho infuses action, suspense, and humor.
With the character of Okja being a major sense of importance to the film thanks in part to work of one of the film’s visual effects supervisors in Erik de Boer, who did the character design, where the actors not only get to interact with this creature but also play into the stakes of the film. Notably where Joon-ho brings the character to New York City as there’s a chilling scene with Okja and Dr. Wilcox at a lab that is disturbing with ALF watching in another location as it play into Dr. Wilcox’s guilt in the corporate role he plays but also in how disturbed he is in doing his job. There is also this sense of disconnect that Joon-ho showcases as it relates to Lucy Mirando about how she approaches business and how her sister Nancy did thinks as the latter is all about money and getting shit done while the former is about image. The sense of humanity also comes into play into its third act with Okja and Mija in the middle as it play into Lucy’s own desire for hope despite the lies she’s hidden yet is followed by a much darker reality that is closer to Nancy’s vision. Yet, there is something hopeful through Mija’s own simple actions but also her own understand about how the world works. Overall, Joon-ho crafts a witty yet heartfelt film about a farm girl trying to save her super-pig from a corporation that wants to kill it for profit.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its usage of naturalistic lighting and lush colors for the scenes in the mountain with low-key lights for the scenes at night while aiming for something a little bit more stylish for the scenes set in New York City in terms of its lighting including the scenes at the factory at night. Editor Yang Jin-mo does excellent work with the editing as it does have some unique fast-cuts for some of the chase and action scenes while also being straightforward in its approach to drama and suspense. Production designers Ha-jun Lee and Kevin Thompson, with art directors Jung-yoon Bae, Deborah Jensen, and Gwendolyn Margetson plus set decorators Susan Bode, Won-Woo Cho, Louise Roper, Yeonghee Seo, and Suk-ki Song, do amazing work with the look of the places in New York City including the Mirando logo and the factory where the super-pigs are forced to stay in the third act as well as the little home Mija and her grandfather live in. Costume designers Se-yeon Choi and Catherine George do fantastic work with the stylish clothes that Lucy Mirando wears as well as the wacky clothing of Dr. Wilcox, the guerilla-inspired gear of ALF, and the simplistic look of Mija.
Hair/makeup designers Hyunkyu Hwang and Sharon Martin do nice work with the look of Lucy Mirando in her quirky presentation from the braces on her teeth in the first scene to her hairstyle that is different from the look of her sister. Special effects supervisor Kyung-soo Park, along with visual effects supervisors Erik de Boer, Angela Ji, Jun Hyoung Kim, and Jeon Hyoung Lee, do terrific work with not just the design of Okja but also some set-dressing for some scenes in the film as well as the presentation of the chase sequence. Sound editor Tae-young Choi and sound designer Dave Whitehead do superb work with the sound in the way Okja sounds, with voice work from Lee Jeong-eun, as well as how certain objects sound including the cattle prod. The film’s music by Jaeil Jung is incredible for its unique mixture of flamenco, classical, and electronic pieces as it adds to the suspense and drama while music supervisor Jemma Burns cultivates a fun soundtrack that features music from the Isley Brothers, John Denver, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Osvaldo Pugliese.
The casting by Jenny Jue is phenomenal as it feature some notable small roles and appearances from Lee Jeong-eun as the voice of Okja and a woman in a wheelchair, Lee Bong-ryun as a Mirando receptionist at the Seoul office building, Choi Woo-shik as an indifferent Mirando driver in Seoul, Yoon Je-moon as a Mirando representative who checks on Okja’s health, Byun Hee-bong as Mija’s well-meaning grandfather who is reluctant to give Okja away, Devon Bostick and Daniel Henshall as two activists for ALF in their respective names in Silver and Blond, and Shirley Henderson in a funny performance as Lucy’s assistant Jennifer who oversees some of the publicity detail involving Mija and Lucy for the big event. Giancarlo Esposito is superb as a Mirando executive in Frank Dawson who keeps an eye on Lucy for Nancy while trying to understand what she’s trying to do as well as see if she can succeed. Steven Yeun and Lily Collins are fantastic in their respective roles as ALF activists K and Red with the former being a tech genius who is also Korean as he helps translate for Mija while the latter is a weapon experts of sorts though she has no intentions in harming anyone while also having some funny things to say.
Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent as the wacky Dr. Johnny Wilcox as a zoologist/TV host who is the face of Mirando as someone who speaks in a somewhat high-pitched voice as he is also disturbed in his love for animals to the point that he becomes consumed with guilt and troubling behavior. Paul Dano is brilliant as Jay as a leader of ALF who is trying to do things the right way and help Mija while not wanting to make her uncomfortable as he’s a well-meaning activist that is aware of the compromises that he has to make. Tilda Swinton is amazing in a dual role as twin sisters Lucy and Nancy Mirando as she provides a lot of quirks and upbeat energy into the former as someone trying to reinvent the company’s image while the latter is only seen briefly as someone that is more of a pessimist and a better understanding of business. Finally, there’s Ahn Seo-hyun in an incredible performance as Mija as a young farm girl who cares for this massive super-pig as she deals with Mirando’s intentions for the pig as she does what she can to save him as it is this understated and somber performance from Seo-hyun who provides a lot of the heart in the film.
Okja is a phenomenal film from Bong Joon-ho. Featuring an incredible ensemble cast, themes of activism and animal rights, dazzling visuals, a sumptuous music score, and mixture of genres. The film is definitely a witty and compelling film that explores a young girl trying to retrieve her pet and her understanding about a world that is just trying to clean itself up despite their dirty methods. In the end, Okja is a sensational film from Bong Joon-ho.
Bong Joon-ho Films: Barking Dogs Never Bite - Memories of Murder - The Host (2006 film) - Tokyo!-Shaking Tokyo - Mother (2009 film) - Snowpiercer - Parasite - The Auteurs #44: Bong Joon-ho
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