Now Watching: Okja

July 7, 2017     Ro     Movie Reviews

Genres: Science Fiction


Okja is a fable – at least if feels like one – about an giant animal raised in the simple but idyllic surroundings allowed to run wild and free in the mountains of South Korea. She’s been raised and cared for with love by a young girl, Mija (An Seo Hyun), who’s her constant companion.

But she isn’t a pet, Okja’s a contestant in corporate competition and the company’s not looking to corner the animal companion market.


In the hopes of overhauling its corporate image and overcoming its robber-baron roots, the Mirando Corporation sent 26 babies of a “newly discovered” species to farmers around the world to be raised for 10 years.

Mirando’s newest CEO, Lucy Mirando, is intent on convincing the world that under her leadership, Mirando Corp.’s a GMO free, environmentally friendly paragon of capitalism working to solve the food shortage, looming on the horizon, for consumers. These “Superpigs” are the solution…

Tilda Swinton’s bracingly bubbly, slightly disaffected Lucy Mirando is a brilliant caricature of the greedy corporate head of industry intent upon being a beloved icon in the public eye. If she reminds you of anyone, it’s purely coincidental as this isn’t an uncommon desire among the rich, powerful, but dying to be popular crowd. Lucy desperately wants to outshine her sister Nancy, the last CEO, and her energy reflects her frantic need to be liked, be successful, and not be called psychotic… Swinton’s performance is, at times, deliberately disjointed – like she’s a marionette whose strings are just outside the visible spectrum. You’re almost convinced she sits like a broken doll in a corner somewhere in between moments of being “on” in front of the bright lights and crowds.

The duality of her persona is set into sharp relief when set against the subtle machinations of her smooth and suave right-hand man Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito) and at stark contrast to her portrayal of Lucy’s twin the unapologetically ruthless Nancy (also played by Tilda Swinton).

After this game show like opening, the scene shifts to the mountains of South Korea where we see a grownup Okja for the first time. Okja is a rotund, hippo-sized animal with a puppy-esque quality and the joyfulness of dolphins at play (assuming of course those pods of dolphins we see happily leaping at sea aren’t actually death squads returning to home base from some nefarious dolphin mission… ok, that went left) and a marked intelligence.

Mija believes she’s liberated Okja from the Mirando Corp. so, when a film crew and television personality Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) show up with Mundo Park – the analyst responsible for collecting Okja’s data – Mija’s confused. Johnny Wilcox is there to announce the winner of the Superpig contest and take the winner, Okja, back to headquarters. Mija is the last to know that her friend’s days of freedom (and living) are now numbered.

This is Jake Gyllenhaal as he’s rarely (if ever) been seen on camera. His geekish, self-absorbed, semi-maniacal portrayal of a mostly-washed up television animal expert borders on the slap-stick.

Johnny Wilcox is deliberately cartoonish (it’s his trademark) and as the film progresses and his complicity begins to overwhelms him, his behavior becomes even less cohesive. It’s equal parts hilarious and harrowing. He literally comes apart at the seams on film. His performance is a jarring note in among a range of subtle and nuance character portrayals but given that he’s playing a man who existed as an overblown caricature of a person to begin with, it felt somehow fitting that as the mood of the film went to dark places, his inability to reconcile his conscience with his actions would turn him into an over-emotive hot mess of crazy. It’s a deliberate step outside the tone of the unfolding drama which further serves to cast the action and intentions of all the involved parties’ around Mija and Okja in a justly ominous light. It does more to drive home the horridness of the choices being made than many of the more overt moments because of its disturbing outlandishness.

The heart of Okja is about Mija’s all-out offensive to save her friend and bring her back home to their mountain. Along the way, she flees her well-meaning grandfather, heads to Seoul, gets rowdy (this little girl threw herself into more than just the role for this film), then meets the ALF, a group of animal rights “freedom fighters” lead by Jay (Paul Dano), determined to expose the evils of the Mirando Corp. and use Okja to do it.

Inserting this group into the narrative brought a needed outside element. It elevates this film to a story beyond the linear arc and deepens the exploration of the corporate/consumer often combative power dynamic and relationship without being heavy-handed. I don’t know if it was intentional, but the ALF members are a living embodiment of the white savior trope shown for what it truly is. A self-indulgent belief that its morals and goals are not only somehow superior and therefore their actions are also just and justified but despite being interlopers, they know best how to save us all. The moment when this group must face its own culpability in the harm done to others is poignant and well placed.