I’m only just now getting around to “Okja” because, well, the thought of a two hour dark Korean comedy about a digital built-in-the-lab superpig of the future holds little appeal.
I loved “The Host,” liked “Snowpiercer” and “Mother,” so filmmaker Joon-ho Bong’s resume should have overcome any reservations.
All the cool kids are in it; Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito and Shirley Henderson among them.
But the stills I’d seen of the digital “Babe” in this sci-fi animal rights satire made it look sillier than it is. Not that it isn’t entirely. Digital critters have been comfortably enjoyed on screen since the first “Jurassic Park” and original “Jumanji,” with the big improvement here being a young actor (Seo-hyun Ahn) literally crawling over something that (more or less, as they used fabricated models) simply doesn’t exist.
And Netflix got into the business of extending the career of Adam Sandler, which cheapens their “Made for Netflix” brand.
Watching it didn’t overcome these pre-viewing biases, alas. It’s alternately wacky and bleak, and despite stunning Korean scenery and a passable chase or two, it feels small-screen. It’s also obvious, with an ending you can guess in the first ten minutes.
But anyway, onward.
Swinton (“Snowpiercer”) plays a supposedly kindly corporate CEO who announces to the world a solution for the growing global food shortage. Her MIRANDO (Monsanto, anyone?) corporation has stumbled across (right) this freak pig, they say, who uses less resources, produces more that’s edible and whose poop literally doesn’t stink. They’re sending samples of this pig to the far corners of the world for a contest to see who does the best job of growing it.
“We needed a miracle. And then we got one!”
Naturally, the porker parked in the play than invented Korean BBQ is a winner. Young Mija ( Seo-hyun Ahn) has bonded with her pig, named her Okja and romps in the forests with her.
Then the company’s resident TV zoo show host (Gyllenhaal) arrives with a crew to film her and select her for the Grand Finals in the content, to be held in New York.
Mija is naturally very upset by this.
But a humorously fanatical band of Animal Liberation Front (Hah!) activists pig-nap Okja en route. Dano plays their passive-aggressive leader, with Steven Yeun, Lily Collins and Devon Bostick in their ranks.
They promise Mija that they’ll save Okja, if she’s OK with them letting her go to the States so the pigs-in-a-test-tube lab can be exposed for the sham it is. They’re VERY committing to protecting all animals, even ones invented by Big Agribusinesses. And they’re so deep into the cause that some of them only eat anything with the greatest reluctance. Reducing their footprint, as it were.
Joon-ho Bong has fun with culture clashes at every turn, making a movie for Netflix yet messing around with translations with jokes only Koreans will understand.
Pitching this as a “children’s fairytale, with an edge” is a serious understatement. The pig is cute enough to be a toy, but the film is “Babe 2” dark and foreboding.
There’s tomfoolery with Swinton’s character having an evil twin (More evil, twin?). Giancarlo Esposito makes an amusing, clipped and emotionless corporate “fixer,” Gyllenhaal takes the opportunity to crank up the wacky as his short-tempered, utterly-compromised “friend to animals” TV host who’s caught up in a slaughterhouse conspiracy.
The animal rights gang’s competence in the pignapping is undercut hilariously by their passivity once they’ve completed the job.
“He still hasn’t eaten anything?”
“No, he’s, uh… still trying to leave the smallest footprint on the planet that he can.”
All in all, very much a mixed bag of a movie. Kudos for Netflix for writing the check that let Joon-ho Bong make a movie available to a much wider audience, but it’s as if he’s hellbent on showing he’s entirely too cool to “sell-out” like that.
And that flattens the comedy in a comic thriller that already lacked suspense. He lost himself in the message, and undercutting that message with a wink.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Cast: Seo-hyun Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Henderson
Credits: Written and directed by Joon-ho Bong. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:00