Monday, 3 July 2017

Okja: EIFF Review

Hit the jump for my thoughts on Boon Jong Ho's Netflix-produced creature feature that's hitting a small screen near you...

Before Okja begins proper, the Netflix brand appears three times on the screen. As a press delegate at a film festival screening, I was surprised that nobody actually booed (apparently Cannes wasn’t so kind). The fact remains, however, Boon Jong Ho’s unusual creature feature transcends the battle of formats – it’s an excellent film that deserves to be watched on the big screen. Pity that it hasn’t been granted a cinema release.

Swinton's intentionally cringey exec
Ahn Seo-Hyeon stars as Mija, the granddaughter of a Korean farmer granted the loan of a new genetically modified ‘Superpig’ by ‘Mirando Corp’ in 2007, and expected to return it 10 years later for the ‘Superpig Contest’ (AKA slaughter). When the pig, Okja, is taken away to New York to take part in this glorified beauty pageant; Mija becomes embroiled in a far-reaching plot to rescue her and return to Korea.

It’s a peculiar premise that translates into a peculiar feature. Jong Ho directs as if directing a family adventure film (the storyline certainly seems appropriate); but is working off a script where expletives are the most common utterances, and there are random bursts of horrific violence/imagery. Perhaps this colourful, buoyant, and yet dirty atmosphere is best exemplified in the glossy opening scene – in which Tilda Swinton, playing the Mirando CEO, delivers a family friendly and sugary press conference before saying her animals will ‘taste fucking good’. It’s a shocking, funny, and telling moment for Okja – one that defines the entirely wacky parameters in which it will operate.

An expensive-looking production
The real comedy value, aside from the constant swearing, mainly comes from cartoonish characters played by cartoonish actors. Aforementioned Swinton plays a typically odd role – imposing, ADD-ridden, braces-wearing exec. Paul Dano takes a turn by playing the commander of the ‘ALF’ (Animal Liberation Front). And Jake Gyllenhall is absolutely fantastic as a washed-up animal TV presenter, who was big in 2007, but by 2017 has lost all his merit. In every scene these actors appear, they steal the show in every way imaginable – although the way in which their characters are sketched in poster paint removes any realism that was present before.

In the final act of Okja, Boon Ho does take a turn for the sinister – with imposing GM labs and slaughterhouses used for much of the footage, although things never really fall into depressing or genuinely shocking territory. The special effects, throughout, are as spectacular as any studio film you’ll see this year. Okja is a fully realised, lifelike creation that feels anything but computer-generated. Subway and street chase scenes feel incredibly realistic – and the main set pieces have been beautifully orchestrated for maximum impact.

A hilarious performance
Perhaps the most disappointing facet of the film is the way in which it eschews real issues in favour of dramatic sensationalism. There’s a real debate to be had between the ALF-mounted plotlines and the world-feeding aims of Mirando; but it’s a debate that is sadly nowhere to be found. Instead, Jong Ho resorts to a two-bit scenario in which the activists are portrayed as heroic; and the large corporations as the epitome of evil. The problem with this, of course, is that it is supremely debatable. To my mind, although Mirando mistreats their animals, their plan supposedly alleviates world hunger. The activists, causing mass panic and destruction in their wake to prevent this, are the ‘bad’ ones for prioritising the lives of synthetic lifeforms over humans.

If Boon Ho is, therefore, going Joaquin Phoenix-style into anti-livestock mode – I’m still not convinced. Okja displays many human traits – it is even suggested that she can communicate with Mija – unlike any other animal engineered for slaughter. This makes for a poor line of argumentation; so I certainly hope that’s not where he was trying to go.

All in all, however, Okja remains fantastic. It’s a very funny, very unique, and very interesting piece of filmmaking which combines crazy characters with first class acting and a wild premise. It’s an absolute blast – and an absolute shame – because you’re gonna have to watch it from an iphone screen. 

Okja gets 4 stars!

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