Thursday, June 29, 2017

On Netflix: OKJA (2017)

(US/South Korea - 2017)

Directed by Bong Joon Ho. Written by Bong Joon Ho and Jon Ronson. Cast: Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Giancarlo Esposito, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik Choi, voice of Jungeun Lee. (Unrated, 120 mins)

Visionary South Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho (THE HOST) returns with the Netflix Original film OKJA, his first since 2014's word-of-mouth arthouse/VOD hit SNOWPIERCER. Like SNOWPIERCER, OJKA splits its time between English and subtitled Korean, but instead of a grim, dystopian class struggle among the last remnants of humanity aboard a perpetually-moving train, it's a freewheeling, go-for-broke satire on corporate America, genetically modified foods, and idiotic TV personalities, among everything else Bong throws at the wall to see what sticks. Normally, the kitchen sink mentality on display here is a recipe for disaster, and while some of it is far too forced and over-the-top, its barbs hit and hit hard. The wild tonal shifts are by design, but Bong could've tightened the leash on a couple of the film's bigger names. OKJA opens in 2007, as Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, in her second film for the director after SNOWPIERCER) is installed as the CEO of Mirando, an agrochemical biotechnology corporation obviously modeled on Monsanto. Lucy's taken over the post, replacing her twin sister Nancy, a PR nightmare viewed as "too mean" to sell the Mirando brand to the public. Lucy immediately starts a goodwill campaign involving 26 "super pigs"--genetically modified pigs created in a Mirando lab under the guise of maximum profits with a minimal footprint. And, as Lucy also explains, "They need to taste fucking good."

26 piglets are sent to various Mirando branches all over the world for a ten-year contest where farmers from each region raise the piglet from infancy to see who has the best "super pig." It's all a PR stunt to improve Mirando's dubious reputation and unethical practices, but in the rural farmlands outside Seoul, 14-year-old Mija (An Seo Hyun) lives with her simple farmer grandfather Heebong (THE HOST's Byun Heebong) and has grown attached to Okja, the intelligent super pig that Heebong received as a piglet a decade ago and is now the size of a small elephant. Okja is orphaned Mija's only friend, and when a Mirando entourage--including hapless South Korea branch exec Mundo Park (Yoon Je Moon) and asshole TV personality and MAGICAL ANIMALS host Dr. Johnny Wilcox (an out-of-control Jake Gyllenhaal)--plan a visit to check on the pig's progress after ten years, she's unaware that their intent is to take Okja away to show her off at Mirando's "Best Super Pig Fest" in NYC before sending her straight to the slaughterhouse. Angry at her grandfather for not being truthful with her about Mirando's plans, Mija runs away to Seoul in an effort to rescue Okja. She ends up being aided by a coordinated crew of animal rights activists from the ALF-- Animal Liberation Front--led by fiercely devoted Jay (Paul Dano), whose soft-spoken demeanor clashes with his propensity for violence when need be ("I apologize for putting you in a choke-hold...I promise you it is a non-lethal choke-hold," he calmly tells a security guard he's incapacitating). Meanwhile, at Mirando headquarters in NYC, the media attention over the incidents in Seoul are a concern to the company's PR head Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito), with Lucy's standing as CEO on such shaky ground that bitch-on-wheels Nancy is given her old job to get things back on track.

Co-produced by Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment, the $50 million OKJA is heavy-handed at times, but for the most part, it does a good job of balancing the very Spielbergian relationship between Mija and Okja with its desire to be the DR. STRANGELOVE of GMO takedowns (in lesser hands, this would probably be called OKJA AND ME). The targets are easy, but the jokes land and the jabs leave some bruising, whether it's the tacit dismissal of US consumers having any qualms about eating genetically modified food ("If it's cheap, they'll eat it," and "It's all edible except the squeal"), or the extreme level of conviction of some of the privileged ALF kids, like rail-thin Silver (Devon Bostick), who goes days without eating to minimize his footprint and chronically passes out (Jay: "I admire your conviction, Silver, but your pallid complexion concerns me"). There's also one laugh-out-loud moment in a Mirando situation room where everyone's watching the events unfold in Seoul and each person present in the room assumes the exact position of a counterpart in the famous shot of President Obama and others watching the raid that took out Bin Laden, complete with Swinton's Lucy with her hand over her mouth just like Hillary Clinton and madman Dr. Johnny taking the Joe Biden spot. There's no reason for it other than a quick sight gag, but it's the best visual joke of its kind since the one-sheet for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 copying THE BREAKFAST CLUB or the "everybody rips everybody else off" line in SWINGERS that's immediately followed by the cast recreating the RESERVOIR DOGS opening credits.

Sometimes Bong dampens the mood by going too dark, particularly in a horrifying and truly unsettling scene where a terrified Okja is subjected to a forced mating overseen by a drunk, cackling, rolling-around-on-the-floor Dr. Johnny. Gyllenhaal is clearly enjoying himself here, and his character's screechy, grating, whiny voice turning into Gyllenhaal's regular voice when Dr. Johnny goes in front of the camera is a amusing running gag, but the actor's performance might be a little too broad, frequently crossing the line into the grotesque, leaving zero room for any subtlety or nuance. Both of Swinton's characters are varying degrees of shrieking monsters (Nancy: "Fuck you, we're very proud of our accomplishments!" she yells in a warehouse full of genetically modified carcasses and pig parts, a blistering bit of absurdist humor that's as close as OKJA gets to "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!") that seem to spring from her Oscar-winning performance in MICHAEL CLAYTON, but she keeps it in check, even if there's no real reason she has to play twins other than Bong indulging his top-billed star who also has a producer credit on the film. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, enters the film as Talk Show Robin Williams and just escalates it further from there. There's a couple of riveting action set pieces in Mija's pursuit of Okja, and indeed, the heart and soul of the film is young An, who has a strong resemblance to Bong's now grown-up HOST and SNOWPIERCER co-star Ko Asung. An turns in a remarkable performance as a lonely, sensitive girl willing to go to the ends of the earth to save her only friend. It helps that Okja herself is a convincingly CGI'd creation in a strange, uneven action/horror/comedy/monster movie/corporate satire that tries to be too many things at once, and while it does trip over itself and teeters on the verge of collapsing into a hot mess on a few occasions, it manages to pull pretty much all of them off.

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