Okja, the latest from South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, tells the tale of Mija and her incredible journey to save her friend Okja from an American slaughterhouse. Lee reviews.
To whom should you market your agenda-ridden think-piece on animal well-being and against American consumerism practices? Adults? Well, they’re probably too far gone now. Stuck in their old ways, stuck in their own ways; either way it’s probably not going to be your way. How about kids? Sure, but that seems as unethical as the movements you’re fighting against; no need to fight dirty. Besides, they probably wouldn’t notice anyway.
Okja, and its writer/director Bong Joon-Ho, would rather make its case for the young teenager. Kids with a little bit of sentience about them, who will recognise injustice and react not with tears but with anger and frustration. Kids who also want to see some cool dudes doing cool things too, just a little past the playing with dolls phase, and don’t mind the odd injection of oddball and surrealist humour (which, if the success of Adventure Time in the US is anything to go by, they don’t).
Rather than play its lofty premise straight and lose audience members, Okja strives for an interesting grey area that attempts to tell a meaningful and serious story throughout, while also exaggerating the forces that look to complicate or even alleviate that story. Every exterior force between the titular GM super-pig Okja and her best-friend/carer Mija falls into the cartoonish; not so much that the stakes don’t matter, but just enough to make the concept of a fight all the more ridiculous next to the wellbeing of the main characters.
It’s a smart decision, backed by great Eastern filmmaking practices; those striking Anime poses, that dedicated motion and emphasis on physical comedy and reaction, the serene quiet of the earliest scenes – it carves for itself a solid identity, which is probably the most important move a well-meaning agenda-piece can do.
Messages on how companies are not and cannot be your friend, or even your ally; traditionalist contradictions, the spite of the elder generations, that metaphor for puberty and even the simplicity of Mija herself – a knowing hypocrite who really only wants her friend, and was happy to eat fish and other meat – there’s plenty to chew on, only occasionally undersold by the irreverence and hand-holding of it all.
Moreover, it’s just a solid story. Funny, heart-warming, occasionally horrible and sad, and with memorable characters throughout. How Paul Dano’s cherub-like face hasn’t found its home in stylised Eastern action fare before should be beyond us; it’s such a natural fit.
The style might lose a few along the way, but for those it hooks it will hook hard. You can’t fake these emotions, indeed.