Bong Joon-ho is one of the more idiosyncratic and imaginative filmmakers to come onto the world stage in recent memory. Films like The Host and Snowpiercer have captured our imagination with their intelligent critiques of modern society, and Okja follows in that tradition as an exploration of the practices that lead to our food, and specifically the meat industry.
First and foremost, Okja is the story of young South Korean girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her adopted super-pig, the titular Okja. I don’t know the exact blend of technical wizardry that went into crafting the look and feel of Okja on screen (I’m guessing some blend of practical effects and CGI), but it’s so convincing, so tactile, so realistic – this is a long distance from the cheap looking effects for the monster in The Host.
In fact, the whole look and feel of this film feels unlike what we normally see on film. The scenes on an idyllic Korean mountaintop feel surreal and fantastic, as something out of a different universe; but even a scene in downtown New York City feels unlike the New York we normally see on film. Bong Joon-ho has always been a master of crafting films with a strong sense of feel and place, so it’s no surprise here, but it still stands out. The music of Okja, by Jaeil Jung, provides a real vibrancy and color to the film, a tapestry of sound unlike what we’re used to in modern film.
There are a number of great featured performances in Okja worth spotlighting. First and foremost is Ahn Seo-hyun, a new discovery for me. It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s work; as in The Host, he found a great young Korean actress to spotlight, and coaxed from her a wide-eyed, empathy-inspiring performance. Tilda Swinton appears here as twin sisters, and it’s an idiosyncratic performance even by her standards; one of them is unabashedly amoral, and the other is eccentric at best; it’s the exact kind of role that Swinton excels at but man does she nail it.
The real standout performance of Okja, of course, is that of Jake Gyllenhaal as Johnny Wilcox, a TV zoologist. Gyllenhaal goes all out, and delivers his most unhinged, over-the-top comedic performance. It’s brave in a way for a star like him – he’s really putting himself out there, letting himself be the butt of the joke here. At times, it’s almost problematic, and I can see how the performance might turn some off – but it worked for me. It’s bold.
Okja is pretty much exactly what I expected from what I know of Bong Joon-ho, and from everything I’d heard going into it. Unsurprising, perhaps, but a wholly satisfying watch. Bong Joon-ho remains one of the most unquestionably idiosyncratic filmmakers in world cinema.