WIDE ANGLE: SAVE THE PETArchive
We’re only halfway through 2017 and have already seen a substantial number of films released this year in which older, damaged men got a chance to redeem themselves by taking care of young and mysterious girls. Hugh Jackman had his work cut out with Dafne Keen in Logan, Mark Wahlberg shared a quasi father-daughter dynamic with Isabela Moner in Transformers: The Last Knight and in Gifted, Chris Evans took care of his brilliant child prodigy niece, played by Grace McKenna. If the trailer is anything to go by, then Star Wars: The Last Jedi will continue this trend in December; an aged Luke Skywalker taking Rey under his wing.
In the new fantasy action-adventure film Okja, which has been produced and released by Netflix, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has a little girl at the centre of his story too. However, her companion is no man and in any case, the characters are way past redemption. The film is a subtle and thankfully never preachy comment on the food industrial complex and its horrific treatment of animals kept in slaughterhouses.
Mija (An Seo Hyun) grows up in the South Korean mountains with her grandfather and a genetically-modified ‘super pig,’ the titular Okja. Mija and the latter share a rather lovely bond and the way the film sets up their friendship in the introductory scenes is Studio Ghibli-level wonderful. We soon learn that Okja is part of a malicious breeding experiment by the Mirando Corporation and their CEO Lucy (Tilda Swinton), who entrusted Mija’s grandfather with the creature 10 years ago and now want him back. There are many such super pigs — they all got similarly distributed around the world and their sole purpose is to be processed into meat.
Okja is about friendship above all
Of course that’s not what the Mirando Corporation tells Mija, who thinks that her docile pet has won a competition when it gets taken back to America. Enter the Animal Liberation Front, led by a brilliantly deadpan Paul Dano. This band of rebels decides to save Okja from the horror that is the Mirando Corporation — in particular their crazed, two-faced spokesperson — Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Bong Joo Ho, who has co-written the script with British journalist and author Jon Ronson, gets a lot of right in the film. For one, the fantasy elements never feel too outlandish, because they are cleverly paired with real issues. The idea is that there is always something bigger at stake. This combination allows for a good number of thrilling set pieces that are all tremendous fun to watch and never feel superficial. Secondly, Okja is a story about friendship first. That is the main focus here, the emotional core of the story. If a corporation will stop at nothing to go through with their cruel plan, a little girl will stop at nothing to save her best friend from murder. And she needs no older man to guide her in this basic human emotion.
The film also benefits from note-perfect performances given by each and every actor or actress in the ensemble. Given the many tonal shifts, it could have easily turned into a bizarre ham-fest with lots of overacting. But in the hands of Bong Joon Ho, Okja turns out to be an original and exciting work by a wholly visionary filmmaker.
Rated PG-13 for strong language and disturbing images
Published in Dawn, ICON, July 23rd, 2017