Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal lead a starry internatioal cast in this Netflix-bound comedy thriller from ‘Snowpiercer’ director Bong Joon-ho, a controversial prize contender in Cannes.
An ungainly mix of benign monster movie, action comedy and coming-of-age fable, Okja marks South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s contentious debut in the official Cannes competition selection. This effects-driven ensemble piece is a tonally uneven affair, cluttered with tone-deaf dialogue and crudely sketched characters that recall Luc Besson at his most obtuse. But such minor flaws did not prevent Bong’s previous adventures in socially conscious sci-fi fantasy, notably The Host and Snowpiercer, from earning critical raves and healthy box office numbers.
Bong’s unorthodox creature feature is already a focus of Cannes controversy after French industry body CNC protested the festival’s inclusion of films destined to bypass domestic theaters altogether. Okja is actually scheduled for a wide big-screen run in South Korea, plus more limited U.S. and U.K. outings in parallel with its global Netflix launch June 28. Festival bosses have now agreed to bar any future films that do not qualify for local cinema release. But this was not enough of a compromise to prevent a disruptive coordinated campaign of audience booing and clapping during the first press screening in Cannes, presumably objecting to the Netflix connection.
An international co-production made by Brad Pitt’s Plan B outfit, among others, Okja is Bong’s biggest project yet. Shot in two languages and three countries (South Korea, the U.S. and Canada) for a budget reportedly around $50 million, Okja boasts visual effects by Oscar-winner Erik-Jan De Boer and a sumptuous Panavision-style digital look courtesy of Darius Khondji, the French-Iranian cinematographer renowned for his repeat engagements with David Fincher, Michael Haneke and Woody Allen. It may be largely destined for small screen consumption, but it looked lavish and cinematic in Cannes.
Cherubic, moon-faced big-screen novice An Seo Hyun stars as Mija, a 14-year-old orphaned girl living with her grandfather in mountainous farm country in South Korea. Her only friend is the eponymous Okja, a cuddly 6 ton “super piglet” from a genetically modified new species that seemingly combines elements of hippopotamus, pig and devoted pet pooch.
But Mija’s blissful prelapsarian worldview is cruelly ruptured when Okja is suddenly hauled away to New York by her creator, corporate CEO Lucy Mirando (Swinton), who is seeking to erase her company’s dubious track record with eco-friendly, feed-the-world, ethical-capitalist publicity stunts. Inevitably, however, Mirando’s real plans for Okja turn out to be far more sinister.
Making her second film with Bong, this time with her own co-producer’s credit, Swinton gives good brittle diva here, all sparkling surface gloss and seething neurosis beneath. Her American-accented performance is a caricature, but thankfully dialed down from her overcooked Nanny McPhee grotesquerie in Snowpiercer. Despite their minor roles, Giancarlo Esposito and Shirley Henderson also bring welcome flickers of Shakespearean nuance as scheming courtiers in Mirando’s corporate queendom.
Sadly, Jake Gyllenhaal opts for much broader slapstick mugging as Mirando’s boozy sidekick Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a former TV zoologist whose reputation went into a nosedive after he signed on as a paid corporate shill. Channeling Jim Carrey at his most grating, Gyllenhaal is wasted here. Screwball comic clowning is plainly not his forte.
With a burning sense of injustice only the young can feel, Mija refuses to take the loss of Okja lying down. Embarking on an audacious mission to rescue the beloved beast and bring her home, Mija joins forces with a gang of dapper but ethically conflicted animal welfare activists led by Jay (Paul Dano) and K (Steve Yeun). A superbly staged truck chase through Seoul, climaxing with Okja smashing up a subterranean shopping mall to the ironic strains of John Denver’s sappy pop classic “Annie’s Song,” provides one of the film’s set-piece action highlights.
The fleshy physicality of Okja herself is mostly well-realized, and pleasingly more rooted in grunting, farting, snot-dribbling reality than sanitized Disney fantasy. Combining puppetry, hydraulics and CG visuals, Bong fleshed out his voluptuous leading lady with help from conceptual artist Hee Chul Jang, who also designed the monster in The Host, plus visual effects supervisor De Boer, who won an Academy Award for creating the tiger in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. Tender scenes in which Okja and Mija sleep alongside each other, and fight to save each other from a dramatic cliff fall, are superlative marriages of digital and live-action.
Typically for Bong’s work, Okja works as both fast-moving action comedy and allegorical fable grounded in heavy-handed critique of business ethics. The captive beast takes on metaphorical meaning as a kind of trophy for competing characters with conflicting self-interested agendas. In the film’s muddled moral schema, human exploitation of animals for naked profiteering, political virtue-signaling or corporate image enhancement are all suspect. But killing and eating them seems to be fine. Only Meji’s innocent love for Okja is presented as pure and sincere. That makes their climatic reunion in a blood-soaked slaughterhouse feel jarringly dark.
Scripted by Bong, then adapted into English by British author and screenwriter Jon Ronson (Frank, The Men Who Stare at Goats), Okja is peppered with lost-in-translation lines and clunky tonal shifts. While the dialogue and themes are adult, the zany cartoon humor and fuzzy, warm, feel-good elements seem to be pitched at pre-teens. Like the cumbersome hybrid animal at its heart, this beast is no beauty. But it is a technically impressive and boldly original statement from a rising Asian auteur with increasingly international ambitions.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Plan B Entertainment, Lewis Pictures, Kate Street Picture Company, in association with Netflix
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik Choi
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Screenwriters: Bong Joon-ho, Jon Ronson
Producers: Dooho Choi, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Woo Sik Seo, Lewis Taewan Kim
Cinematographer: Darius Khondji
Editor: Yang Jinmo
Production designers: Lee Ha Jun, Kevin Thompson
Costume designers: Choi Seyeon, Catherine George
Music: Jaeil Jung