Sydney Film Festival Review: Okja (USA/Korea, 2017) delivers an exhilarating, heartfelt ride from a master filmmaker

Okja is a film involving a giant mutated pig. What more do you want? But seriously, in order to understand the hype of the film, you have to know the filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho.

Bong Joon-Ho is an acclaimed Korean filmmaker who has made some incredible films. And the reason he is so acclaimed is his assured directorial hand in mixing genres that usually do not associate with each other, while executing them all brilliantly. And he also adds a sense of humour, regardless of how inappropriate the tone of the film is.

His impressive resume so far includes films like the strikingly dark comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite, the comic-confronting crime thriller Memories of Murder, the blockbuster monster film The Host (not the film starring Saoirse Ronan, thank goodness), the old-fashioned mystery-noir Mother and the dystopian epic Snowpiercer.

Considering the critical acclaim that Bong has received, having expectations reaching levels other than high is an understandable reaction. Seeing how this was the closing film of Sydney Film Fest 2017, it was likely that Okja would end it with a bang. Does it?

An Seo Hyun stars as Mija, a young girl who lives in the mountains with her grandfather (Byun Heebong) and is a caretaker and loving companion to Okja, a giant super pig. Life seems simple enough but that eventually changes when a family-owned multinational conglomerate takes Okja for themselves and transports her to New York, where image obsessed and self-promoting CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has big plans for Mija’s dearest friend.

With no plan and only her sheer focus, Mija vows to get her back but the journey will be hard going, going through many obstacles like capitalists, fat cats, greedy consumers, demonstrators (led by Paul Dano). Will Mija succeed in bringing her best friend home?

Just like his earlier films, director Bong deals with a lot of issues and ideas like consumerism, animal rights, the environment and capitalism; all while forming an action-adventure film and a political satire. With all that baggage, it’s a miracle that Okja works as well as it does. But we should expect no less from our beloved auteur.

Even though the issues are serious, Bong never backs out from adding a touch of humour into the mix, as he places the target on both the characters and themes, satarising them with verve. For example, the characters Bostick and Henshall, who foolishly contribute to their cause by starving themselves to leave a minimal environmental footprint. But this does not mean Bong doesn’t get straight to the point, as he steers the film into very dark territory, particularly in the final act. This may be the first film that I praise due to the fact that it almost made me throw up.

All the themes pack a thematic punch as well as an emotional punch, as it adds to the heart of the film, which is the bond between Mija and Okja. The peaceful scenes between the two are executed very well (complete with references to the anime film, My Neighbour Totoro), without being overstated or sappy. There’s even a scene where the family are gathering together to eat and it is reminiscent to one of the scenes in The Host.

There’s a scene where the two take a shortcut back home and it ends up being more than they bargained for. The scene is thrilling, action-packed and skillfully foreshadows what is to come between their relationship.

Speaking of action scenes, they are all gleefully manic, yet intricately composed. There is a scene where Mija arrives in Seoul and single-handedly shakes the corporation, resulting in a fantastic car chase, leading to a shopping center that reaches its beautifully realized climax with the use of “Annie’s Song” by John Denver.

But none of it would be as good as it looks without the cinematography by Darius Khondji, who is clearly embracing the resources of what digital filmmaking can do. The CGI modelling of the creature itself is quite impressive, especially considering the budget, which is only $50 million.

The acting from the ensemble cast are all either fun, unhinged or thankfully, genuine. An Seo Hyun, who impressed in the 2010 remake The Housemaid, is the solid rock of the film that keeps the film grounded, as she convincingly conveys both the tough, determined side and the paternal side of her character. The former is shown perfectly during a funny scene where Mija tries to enter the government floor entrance.

On the other side of the spectrum, Jake Gyllenhaal gleefully hams it up figuratively as well as literally. Tilda Swinton vamps it up as well as camps it up as the primary antagonist, Lucy Mirando, and she nails it, as usual while Paul Dano, in an example of off-kilter casting as with Gyllenhaal, is surprisingly cool as the leader of the animal rights group.

The smaller roles from the conflicted Steven Yeun, the fiery Lily Collins, the comically dedicated duo of Devon Bostick and Daniel Henshall, the fatherly Byun Heebong, the weaselly Choi Woo Shik, the subtly menacing, scheming Giancarlo Esposito and the overworked and nasally Shirley Henderson all immensely contribute to the fun.

Like Okja itself, the film tends to lumber a lot, veering in many directions and tones, sometimes going on-the-snout with its themes, and like Gyllenhaal’s character, its rebellious and off-kilter filmmaking may turn people off. But like a roller-coaster, it is exhilarating stuff, and it rarely ever abides to filmmaking conventions and tropes. Okja was a film that had everything I hoped for and I wish more films like this would get made, regardless of where it comes from.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Okja screened as the closing film of the Sydney Film Festival, where it was reviewed. It will be released on Netflix globally on June 28th.