Sunday, 31 December 2017

Movie Review: Okja (2017)



www.thegaia.org
The plot: For the past ten years, South Korean girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has looked after Okja, a “super-pig” that is one of 26 specimens sent out by the Mirando Corporation to different farmers all over the world. However, when Mirando CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) takes Okja away to take part in a competition in New York, Okja finds herself in the middle of an open battle between Mirando and a group of animal rights activists led by Jay (Paul Dano) as to what Okja, and the other super-pigs like her, will become.





Seo-hyun works very well as the young but extremely determined center of the story, showing a certain purity in her love for Okja that is mostly communicated far more through her movements than her words. Swinton appears in yet another unrecognizable turn as an ambitious but rather jaded corporate head, pulling a double act as Lucy’s twin sister Nancy later on and showing a serious talent at the acting craft in how she makes them both rather distinguishable beyond just the hair colour. Dano appears to be in full James Bond mode here, as he plays the radical quasi-terrorist with a lot of downplayed emotion (mostly, save for when he unleashes on a lying comrade) and a truly disarming presence. Jake Gyllenhaal as the zoologist and TV show host Johnny Wilcox fits right into his wheelhouse of positively anarchic performances, only filtered through a sizeable amount of camp to make for a pitiful but intimidating presence. Steven Yeun and Lily Collins as two of Jay’s comrades fit in rather nicely, Shirley Henderson as Lucy’s assistant brings a certain authoritative shrillness to the part that works surprisingly smoothly, and Giancarlo Esposito as Lucy’s right-hand man Frank gets a lot of mileage out of the ‘man behind the throne’ role he’s been given.

I always feel more than a little off when it comes to discussing animal rights. Partly because I’m a bit fearful of coming across as a hypocrite, being an unrepentant meat-eater myself, and partly because there are a lot of layers to the topic overall, not nearly enough of them being brought into the usual discussion. With this in mind, this film is already off to a good start with how it sets up the separate pieces of the main conflict and fleshes them out so it isn’t as simple as them being “good” or “bad”. Lucy mentions frequently that she wants the company to move beyond her father, someone even she admits was a complete bastard who mistreated his workers, and yet she is the mastermind behind a plan that still involves quite a bit of cruelty. Jay has rather noble intentions, but considering the methods of his group… well, I mentioned that he was a quasi-terrorist for a reason, as that’s how questionable some of the ALF’s actions can get. Hell, the film even brings up certain points to bounce off of what would be the typical leanings for a film like this, between Lucy using the super-pigs to address food shortages and a member of the ALF being so much of a greenie that he’s basically starving himself to death because “all food production is exploitative”. It’s rare you’ll see a film on the side of animal activism, while simultaneously taking the piss out of those same activists.

Not that any of that is really the core of the story; to that end, we have Mija’s relationship with the animal. When it comes to delivering a message to an audience, a good rule of thumb is that making the message more personal can leave a bigger impact. It’s one thing for a large-ish organization to tell you that a certain animal shouldn’t be slaughtered; it’s quite another for the person who raised that animal from infancy to say the same. Through the acting chops of Seo-hyun and the rather impressive effects work to bring Okja to life, we get that personal touch that pushes forward not a message of activism, but a message of compassion. No agenda, no compromise, no sleight-of-hand; just a girl who wants to be reunited with her best friend. This is driven home once the film gets into how Okja is treated at the hands of the Mirando Corporation and Wilcox in particular, in a scene that will likely turn a lot of stomachs. As it should. Even as someone who isn’t vegetarian by any stretch (neither are humans by their very nature, but that’s a topic for another day), it’s not much to ask for some level of humane treatment to be involved. And as we see the opposite of that occur, it makes Mija’s mission to save Okja specifically grip the heart rather tightly.

All in all, this is a solid almost-Seussian parable about animal rights, channelled through an excellent cast and a very lucid script by director Bong Joon-ho and Welsh author and journalist Jon Ronson. Rather than just make it a talking piece about how it’s wrong to kill animals or eat meat, it keeps things nice and personal as it uses the journey of one person saving one animal to do far more than a simple soapbox moment could accomplish. On a minor note as well, this furthers the recurring mindset I kept noticing during 2017: Children are much smarter than people give them credit for, and they’re the ones who will lead us into the future. With 2018 only minutes away, I can only hope that that notion sticks around in the public consciousness for a while longer.

It ranks higher than Ferdinand, as this film’s core message didn’t involve wading through seriously annoying characters and jokes to get to in its entirety; the actors here are very well-picked and the words follow suit. However, this still didn’t engage with me as much as My Little Pony: The Movie, likely out of a certain hesitance I have regarding animal rights discussions as said above; MLP was simply easier to get into.

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