Skip to main content

Say hello to a super piglet.

Okja
(2017)

(SPOILERS) I’d avoided Okja until now, mainly because, while I enjoyed Snowpiercer up to a point, I found its on-the-nose political allegory borderline excruciating. And that was quite beside the absence of internal logic in respect of its premise. Okja promised more of the same, and indeed, Bong Joon-ho’s hammer-to-crack-a-nut approach is entirely less than endearing, such that I was frequently prone to wishing a fate worse than sausages on the adorably titular GM porker and be done with her.


But Bong’s a fine filmmaker, if a much more variable writer (here helped out by Jon Ronson, who acquitted himself much more honorably when he previously collaborated with Peter Straughan on Frank), so it would be unlikely that he didn’t come up with something at least fitfully engaging, and Okja’s certainly that. It’s just unfortunate that it’s humour tends to fall flat, while its message isn’t so much thrust in your face as forced down your throat until you gag on the stream of anti-GM/pro-animal rights/pro-ecology/anti-corporate entreatments (all admirable positions, but assuming most of the captive audience will be on board anyway, they’re at best patronising and at worst lazily vapid). Added to which, its brand of unabashed sentimentality is particularly galling.


Okja’s a super pig, mystifyingly passed off by the Mirando Corporation as a non-GMO miracle piglet (how, precisely, anyone even remotely believes this is never broached; we have to take it on faith) because the company is acutely aware its product wouldn’t go down well in anti-GM environment. More mystifyingly, this “answer to hunger” (possibly an intentionally artificial sales pitch, as the only foodstuff we actually see is Super Pig Jerky, but you can never tell with this unfinessed level of satire/farce) has a ten-year growth period before the slaughter. Not very factory-farm efficient, then, particularly when Mirando makes the decision to cull the entire crop (so what, are they going to start from scratch again, waiting another ten years?)


In Bong’s rush to manipulate our emotions, he entirely ignores earlier introduced plot points. Such as, why have Okja impregnated by a super boar – portrayed, rather weirdly, for all that we accept the anthropomorphic tendencies of the picture, as rape – if she’s subsequently going to be slaughtered? And then, at the end, this is forgotten about, as presumably Bong and Ronson didn’t want to associate any offspring with conception against her wishes.


Okja’s major supporter is Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun, giving a winning, spirited performance), who furiously leaves her mountain idyll in hot pursuit when her non-circumspect grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) hands the beloved porker over to Mirando. She teams up with the dedicated but semi-parodied Animal Liberation Front, led by the patented creepy man-child stylings of Paul Dano’s Jay and including in its ranks Steven Yeu, Lily Collins (I’m guessing she did it for the cause, as she barely registers) and Jay Baruchel-alike Devon Bostick (skipping meals because “He’s still trying to leave the smallest footprint on the planet that he can”).


While being asked to root for Paul Dano doesn’t exactly help a movie, any mixed allegiances are more than compensated for by a – if there’s any justice – career-ending turn from Jake Gyllenhaal as TV zoologist Johnny Wilcox, who has been bought out by Mirando and acts as their spokesperson. It’s hard to express in words just how horrific Gyllenhaal’s comedy shtick is, except to note there’s good reason he has nothing of note in that genre on his CV (City Slickers doesn’t count). Jake appears to be attempting a performance pitched somewhere between Sharlto Copley and Jim Carrey but flounders entirely. I mean, yeah, I know we aren’t supposed to like Johnny, but the dead air permeating the picture whenever Gyllenhaal has a scene of over-exerting says something about his comic chops – they’re non-existent.


Not faring all that much better is the usually reliable Tilda Swinton (okay, she’s much better than Gyllenhaal, just not by her standards), who seems to have plumped for the part on the basis that she was only doing twins last year (see also Hail, Caesar!) Neither of whom are particularly interesting, no matter how many dental appliances and nervous ticks she gives them. Giancarlo Esposito lends a bit of weight as the mastermind behind her CEO/former CEO (Mirando is propped up on nepotism, although I saw nothing otherwise Murdochian about it) while Shirley Henderson, as one of Swinton’s assistants – that is, the assistant of one of the Swintons –  is essentially reheating Moaning Myrtle from Harry Potter.


Pulling off this kind of mix of comedy and pathos, sincerity and cynicism (Mija saves the special pig, but the rest are mincemeat), is no easy task, and Bong sadly isn’t up to it. There are moments early on suggestive of more nuance than is settled for – Mija needs to extract an object from Okja’s foot, and it turns out to be a hedgehog the loveably blundering oinker trod on (GM spelling the extinction of natural species?), while Mija throws back a tiddler fish as an implicit endorsement of sustainable methods – but Bong’s more interested in slapstick Gyllenhaal shtick and Okja shit (literally), and sloppy plotting (how much was her grandfather paid that his gold pig is considered more than valuable enough to ensure Okja is returned to Mija? Surely a big corp would make sure he was rewarded with peanuts?)


Nevertheless, while the characterisation largely sucks, the FX rendering Okja are outstanding, sufficiently photoreal that you don’t doubt she’s there, and imbued with tonnes of heart-tugging personality to boot (Darius Khondji’s photography is also faultless). So much so, it’s almost impossible not to be offended at Ronson and Bong’s manipulation offensive. Okja’s an odd viewing experience, as if the The Farrelly Brothers opted to make an earnest eco-parable. One can’t help feeling, with some judicious pruning, both of tone and F-bombs, this could have been a much more effective, audience-friendly movie, one that sustained its message (albeit, it’s difficult to tell what has gone down well and hit its target demographic with Netflix) with Babe-like consequences in terms of inviting identification and empathy. Instead, we got another Snowpiercer (although, at least that didn’t try to be funny), chock full of crude ham – ahem – handedness and boorish in its message and delivery.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.