There’s a great number of people in the world who are very much set in their ways and, in the film industry, this is no more pronounced that at the Cannes Film Festival. Okja, the Netflix produced film which was in competition at the Cannes film Festival was booed when the Netflix logo appeared on screen (though eventually the film received a standing ovation). As much as I appreciate the French film industry for its quality pictures and being the birth place of cinema I feel the 36 month limit placed on streaming service serves is as much as a refusal to get with the times as it is a bid to protect the industry and the country’s spectacular reputation for theatres and cinema.
Ten years ago the Mirando Coperations kicks off a competition that challenges 26 farmers around the world to rear a new species of super pig, the winner’s pig will be turned into a juicy meal for consumers around the world. In Korea, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather hand-rear what was to be judged to be the greatest of all super pigs named Okja who is to be take away. Mija is devastated to find out that they will take Okja away and with the help of the Animal Liberation Front, Mija seeks to release Okja from the clutches of the Mirando Cooperation
Director Bong Joon-ho (best known for films such as The Host and Snowpeicer) is known for using comedy in a way that could easily be seen as jarring (think the grief scene in The Host). It’s a directorial trademark he uses once again in Okja and its perhaps the reason why the film is a tonal mess. The first half of the film has a family friendly, light-hearted feel as we are introduced to Okja and their tender and loving relationship as they play in the Korean countryside. The second half of the film is much darker as the film goes to a slaughter house and takes swipes at capitalism and corperate greed.
The tonal switch from a light-hearted opening to darker second half of the film is pretty standard and both work really well with the first half providing the emotional weight which makes the second half of the film so throught provoking. What’s problematic is Bong Joon-ho injection of humour into the story. As it’s a trademark of the director, it’s clear that this was deliberate move on part of the director so when it doesn’t work it might be because it just didn’t resonate with the viewer. Personally, I found some aspects of the comedy (the projectile pooping for instance) to jar uncomfortably the darker the film got. Furthermore, the swearing felt oddly out of place as though it served more as a cheeky wink to the audience saying “look! We are swearing! Isn’t it funny!”
What also jars oddly with the film is the performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and (less so) Tilda Swinton). Each of them ham up their performance with Jake Gyllenhaal’s eccentric performance in particular being rather grating. It shows that whilst the actor is immensely talented, eccentric performances really isn’t his forte as his hammy performance comes off as rather like a terrible Nicolas Cage performance. The zany performance and offbeat humour punctuates a dark and serious climax for the worse, but the fact that it doesn’t becoming a define factor is testament to the strength of the central relationship between human and animal.
The critical emotional hook of the film is the relationship between Mija and Ojka. The film takes its time building the relationship between the pair by having them play, fish, and hunt with each other in the Korean countryside. In fact, Ojka saves Mija’s life highlighting the loving bond between the two. The time spent dedicated to building their relationship makes the dark climax more darker and the threat to Ojka more daunting. It’s an emotionally wrenching film, led by a superb performance from Ahn Seo-hyun.
The beautifully told relationship between human and animal (a story often told in films like Pete’s Dragon and The Never Ending Story) is what makes the film work, and it’s a testament to the power of this relationship that it overcomes the film’s many flaws and still leaves an emotional impact.