Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
OKJA, 118 minutes, NR
Directed by: Joon-ho Bong (as Bong Joon Ho)
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Giancarlo Esposito
Filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has a cult following with cinephiles – no doubt about it. While I loved MEMORIES OF MURDER, I got dragged mercilessly by the rabid fans of SNOWPIERCER for absolutely hating how its subtext reads as shouted text. I’ve even debated its merits at parties, which, side note: Yes, I’m a fun party guest. Though it is a vast improvement on his socially conscious/ woke storytelling as of late, OKJA is just okay, falling prey to an incredibly weak third act.
Newly-crowned CEO of the Mirando Corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, who also plays a dual role as Lucy’s twin sister Nancy) has set out to take the world by storm with her special breed of super-pigs. Touted as an eco-friendly, natural, non-GMO meat-source, the new breed is the ticket to her family’s redemption by solving world-hunger. She and gonzo kid’s show host Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal doing his best “Hunter S. Thompson meets Brian Fellows” impression) are holding a contest to find the most beautiful super-pig in the world. They’ve sent their genetic creation to 26 countries in the world in hopes that, in ten years time, they’ll recall their product to be unveiled to the world. It’ll be a corporate coup! Ten years later, we find orphaned Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) frolicking with Okja, the super-pig her grandfather raised. The pair have an undeniable bond. However, corporate comes a’callin’ and off to New York her beloved pet goes.
Tonally, director Bong takes things everywhere – light, then murky, then quickly dialing the knob back fully into darkness. To describe this pseudo coming-of-age, “girl and her dog” action-drama is a feat. And there’s a certain admirable quality in not being able to nail it down. The film starts as a family movie – a riff on something Miyazaki or Spielberg might have created in a fever dream. The creature effects are beautiful, as it comes alive right before your eyes, tethering you to the narrative’s bleeding heart. Okja’s epic poop scene, while not quite as hilarious as this hipppo’s fart, is perfectly timed hilarity. The socio-ecological message is woven throughout, in some spots (act one and two) better than others (hoo boy, act three).
All the characters serve the theme. They all begin their journey as idealists, but through one circumstance or another, become corrupted, hoisted by their own petard, or have their naiveté ruthlessly stripped of them. This point is driven home by Lucy’s struggles and the rogue squad of principled PETA-esque social activists – compassionate leader Jay (Paul Dano), translator K (Steve Yeun), badass Red (Lily Collins), extremist Silver (Devon Bostick) and Blond (Daniel Henshall). The situations they find themselves in become something more graphic-novel-inspired during their pursuit to break Okja free from corporate clutches.
That’s when the dark AF third act kicks in – one that’s problematic, unscrupulous and shockingly obvious in its aim. We see Okja horrifically raped by a monstrous corporate creation in captivity (it’s a METAPHOR!). It’s brutalized in other ways – mostly to manipulate our feelings. Yet the end product merely preaches to the choir. It only adds questions: Do people watching this not know slaughterhouse practices? Are they not aware of where they get their meat? Is this supposed to turn us vegetarian? Mija’s solution is also apparent from moment one to those trained to spot a Macguffin.
Perhaps the worst thing about this film is that Mija is left severely underdeveloped by Bong and Jon Ronson’s script. It’s at a detriment to the narrative. Everyone else around her – including a tertiary character, the very Rumsfeldian Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito) – has a dramatic arc to some degree. Kudos for making her economical, but it reads as far too simplistic.
Is this the worst thing you’ve watched on Netflix? No – not even close. That said, it won’t be the most rewarding thing either. Bong’s aesthetic is undeniably catchy, but his narrative is akin to eating meat past the sell-by-date. It’s Spam when we should be dining on pork chops.
OKJA hits Netflix on June 28. It will play at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles from July 2-8.