OKJA (2017, Bong Joon-ho)
One of the keys to this ebullient, expansive near-masterpiece is in noticing just how much it values globalism and different-ness. Early in the film, our heroine Mija is sleeping atop her best friend and pet, the giant hippo-manatee-superpig Okja. When Okja rolls over, Mija does too, so she doesn’t fall off. This happens while both of them are unconscious – not only showing the bond they have, but since it all happens in wide shot, we also see the extreme physical disparity between them. By contrast, Tilda Swinton’s twin characters Lucy and Nancy (between this and HAIL CAESAR! she’s having a banner couple years for dual roles) look identical, yet their relationship is fraught, and has a poisonous effect on the company and the public at-large. The less we are similar, the more we can and should connect. (This isn’t even mentioning a Korean character who gets “Translations are sacred” tattooed onto his forearm).
You might miss this message about crossing cultural and species boundaries, since the food-industry critique, anti-capitalism, and animal-activism messages are more front and center. But even with those, Bong is pointedly equivocal – the activists are just as wrong-headed at times, they betray each other and their missions are compromised by poor logic. This isn’t a Morrissey video. Bong still eats meat. The goal is to explore which values drive our behavior, and the consequences that come from perhaps overvaluing fame, popularity, money, or power over shared experiences, unconditional love, and unconventional bonds. After all, Mija wouldn’t even have a pet were it not for Mirando’s genetic engineering.
Not to make this review too much about the subject matter – formally, it’s dazzling. The special effects are sensational: Okja is from the designer who gave us the tiger in LIFE OF PI, and I’ve rarely seen such seamless CG work on screen. Add to that Bong’s sense of scale and proportion, and you get a work of visual beauty and comedy. Jake Gyllenhall is maniacally over-the-top but it works like a dream because he’s committed and knows what will make the character seem moored to the story. This isn’t just a stunt to show off Gyllenhall doing something new; it’s a controlled piece of physical performance art from the knees to the eyes and I couldn’t stop laughing.
On top of that, there’s the mastery of tone, which is something given just how dark and serious it can get between scenes of gut-busting hilarity. And here’s where I brag that I saw it at the only theater on Earth showing a 35mm print of it (even though it was shot digitally) with the director a few seats over – and his comments after the screening revealed him to be just as insightful as his film suggests. Even though seeing it with a big crowd made the comedy more uproarious and the sense of community stronger, I strongly urge everyone reading to head to Netflix where this is readily available for streaming. It’s one of those times where “you’ve never seen anything like it” is both true and good.