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Review: Okja an over-the-top blockbuster with a message

An Seo Hyun as Mija in Okja

Netflix/Globe and Mail Update

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Okja
Written by
Bong Joon Ho and Jon Ronson
Directed by
Bong Joon Ho
Starring
Tilda Swinton, Ahn Seo Hyun and Jake Gyllenhaal
Country
USA
Language
English

Like its title character, a genetically mutated super-pig who might be the answer to worldwide hunger, there are several factions fighting over the fate of Okja. In Hollywood, the movie is at the centre of a tug of war between traditional studios and the streaming service Netflix, the latter of which eschews the theatrical exhibition that sustains the former. In South Korea, home to director Bong Joon Ho, it's a fevered battle that pits homegrown pride against industry concerns (major South Korean exhibitors are refusing to show the film, because of its Netflix imprimatur). But for audiences, Okja's legacy may be less a matter of contention than it is of simple curiosity. If this is the film that is destined to divide the movie business, it's as weird and imperfect a choice as could possibly be.

Those stumbling onto Okja, whether it's via Netflix or during its limited theatrical run at Toronto's Lightbox (but let's be serious, it'll be on Netflix after searching for episodes of Peppa the Pig), might be bewildered over its mix of the serious and the silly, social commentary and gonzo surreality. But that's just par for the course with Bong, whose work is as colourful as it is exhausting. Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother and finally Snowpiercer, the sleeper that broke him to a certain slice of Western audiences – a Bong film is forcefully imaginative and maddeningly unrestrained, a combination that can be volatile or intoxicating, depending on your tolerance for extravagance. Okja, then, is similarly difficult to tame, a super-pig of a film that is overstuffed almost to the point of nausea.

The story kicks off with a blunt bit of corporate satire, introducing us to the Mirando Corporation, a multinational conglomerate that is 100-per-cent evil thanks to its maniacal chief executive officer (Bong regular Tilda Swinton), who the script inaccurately refers to as Lucy Mirando when it's obvious her name is Cruella de Vil. With global hunger on the rise and profits to be found in the filling of bellies, Mirando has taken the drastic step of bioengineering gigantic pigs. But to whitewash this effort, the company cooks up a public-relations scheme in which farmers from around the world are tasked with raising their own super-pig, the healthiest one eventually winning a televised talent contest of sorts in a decade's time.

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Flash-forward 10 years and the best-in-show looks to be Okja, a massive swine who spends her time cavorting around the mountains of South Korea with her protector and best friend, the young Mija (Ahn Seo Hyun). But then Mirando comes knocking, along with celebrity spokesman Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, hammier than any of his porcine co-stars) and Mija gets roped into a rescue mission that puts her in direct conflict not only with the capitalistic machinations of Mirando, but also with an animal-rights group that preaches "non-violent terrorism."

It's all spectacularly over-the-top, with wild set pieces that call to mind the best in blockbuster filmmaking butting up against soul-crushing glimpses into just how the sausage is made. By the time Bong pivots from Hyun delivering a sincerely affecting riff on E.T.'s Elliott to Gyllenhaal orchestrating factory-farm sexual assault, it can feel like cinematic whiplash – delirious messiness for the sheer sake of it. But at least Okja, both the film and the beast, is alive and kicking, eager to say something with a sense of flair, a feat too few of this summer's films can claim. Bong has manic energy to burn, so best to put it all on the screen – especially while he has access to Netflix's deep pockets.

Okja screens June 28 alongside other Bong Joon Ho works at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net), the same day it becomes available to stream on Netflix.

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About the Author

Barry Hertz is the deputy arts editor and film editor for The Globe and Mail. He previously served as the Executive Producer of Features for the National Post, and was a manager and writer at Maclean’s before that. His arts and culture writing has also been featured in several publications, including Reader’s Digest and NOW Magazine. More

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