Monday, July 17, 2017

"Okja" (2017)

*This review discusses major plot points, all of which are after the page break. You've been warned.*

Okja, the latest film from Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, first made waves at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where the Netflix-produced and distributed film entered the Official Competition. This caused quite a stir on the Palais, where many critics and exhibitors questioned whether the film should be eligible for the competition since it was largely bypassing theaters in favor of debuting on the streaming platform. France is particularly protectionist of its film industry, and the government has passed laws in recent years aimed at curbing the proliferation of streaming and protecting the interests of theater owners and exhibitors. Netflix's decision to bypass French theaters irked many, ultimately leading the company to relent and open the film in a few theaters and the festival to enact a new bylaw preventing films from entering the main competition without securing French theatrical distribution (this isn't unique to France either; in Bong's native South Korea, several major theater chains threatened to boycott showing the film if Netflix didn't wait three weeks after the theatrical release to stream it in the country).

While the film itself certainly can't be faulted for the controversies surround its exhibition, it is fitting that Okja is under scrutiny for the effects of late capitalism. The film is, essentially, a critique of late capitalism dressed up as a charming story of a young girl and her pet genetically-modified "super-pig." The girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), is the granddaughter of a Korean farmer who was one of 24 global recipients of a "super-piglet" from the Mirando Corporation, a chemical company-turned-agricultural giant run by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton). Lucy plans to unveil the super-pigs through a "best pig" competition that presents the creature as a locally-sourced, completely natural organism that is environmentally friendly to boot, rather than the factory-grown-and-slaughtered GMOs going into the company's new sausages. Mija's pig, Okja, is selected by the company's Steve Irwin-esque celebrity spokesman Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) as the best pig, and so Okja is off to New York for the public unveiling. Mija follows her beloved pet and, with the help of the Animal Liberation Front, attempts to rescue Okja and expose the truth behind Mirando's super-pigs.

As in Bong's previous feature, Snowpiercer, Okja juggles multiple ideas and tones throughout its two-hour running time. He is not quite as successful at pulling off that trick as he has been in the past, but Okja is nonetheless a fascinating satire of globalized capitalism.

More *SPOILERS* after the break.

The "globalized" point is one of the more fascinating ideas that Bong has explored in his career. Nearly all of his films, including his most well-known, The Host (2006), have touched on both the positive and negative effects of globalization to some extent. Snowpiercer marked the most notable shift in his perspective, since the film itself was an international co-production and featured a cast of actors from around the world. Okja is an extension of that production system: an international co-production with a global streaming giant, featuring an eclectic cast of Korean, American, and British actors. In this film, Bong does not appear to be too perturbed by the effects of a globalized world; in fact, the deleterious effects of Mirando's extensive reach and shady involvement in international conflicts (similar to a certain real multi-national agro-chemical corporation's history with Agent Orange) barely register with the filmmaker. This feels like a missed opportunity for the filmmaker, especially considering a brief scene that recreates the famous Pete Souza photograph of the White House "Situation Room" darkly implies where true power lies in the current global order.

Satirically, Bong fares better when his target is the profiteering machinations of capitalism and the effectiveness of activism. Snowpiercer was significant for the cynical eye Bong cast on populist revolutions, and that cynicism permeates the film's portrayal of Lucy as a "friendly" CEO supposedly as dedicated to protecting people and the planet as profit margins. Bong undercuts Lucy's positivity by introducing her twin sister, Nancy (also Swinton), as her ruthless predecessor. In an interview with The A.V. Club, Swinton and Bong refer to the characters as "the twin faces of capitalism," and through Swinton's reliably nimble performance they easily function as two sides of the same efficiency-minded coin. The Animal Liberation Front, on the other hand, is certainly on Mija's side, but fail to be much help: they bicker about the proper ideological stances in the face of a powerful, unified adversary (sound familiar?) and, despite successfully revealing footage of the abuses the pigs endure, seemingly fail to enact change. In fact, Mija rescues Okja from slaughter by engaging in a negotiation any true capitalist will appreciate: buying her from Nancy with a golden pig given to her by her grandfather. Only Okja is spared from this fate, however; presumably, Mirando's super-pigs will be consumed around the world by a customer base blissfully ignorant or indifferent toward the corporation's sins. 

Bong's film is at it's best when it takes potshots at the agricultural industry and late capitalism. This is not to say, however, that the girl-and-her-pet story isn't affecting, thanks to Ahn's breakout performance and the terrifically expressive effects work on Okja. Aside from Swinton, Giancarlo Esposito does fine work as one of Mirando's associates who may have ulterior motives. And Gyllenhaal is something else entirely: affecting a sneering whine of a voice and contorting his face and body into the strangest positions, he plays Wilcox as a spoiled performer disgruntled with his reduced role as corporate puppet brought out to distract the masses from the indignities the company thrusts upon the pigs (and himself). It's a performance that feels at once teleported in from another universe yet totally at home within the film's grab-bag of tones and ideas.

Of course, there is a certain irony that comes with a film this critical of capitalism being produced and distributed by a corporation with tendrils in every corner of the globe and, as established in the first paragraph, a history of undermining the regulations of other countries to suit its own business needs. Okja takes a complicated, cynical look at capitalism, and even if it isn't one of Bong's most successful films, it still raises some important questions while providing a heartwarming vehicle for those questions.

No comments: