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

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.