Tuesday, June 27, 2017

'Okja:' A very big pig movie

Once you know that Okja is a pig the size of a hippopotamus, you'll understand that the movie named after her isn't going to be a typical affair. It's also worth knowing that Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer and The Host) isn't trying to turn Okja into an updated version of Babe, the endearing Australian charmer from 1995.

Ever ready to expose greed and deception, Bong has made a movie about the ways in which a callous corporation exploits both the pig and the pig's keeper, a quietly determined Korean girl named Mija (An Seo-hyun).

Early on, we learn that the Mirando company has created enormous genetically modified pigs. Wanting to keep the pigs under wraps for a decade, the company sends each animal to a far-flung keeper. The keepers are responsible for raising the pigs. Mija is one of those keepers.

It soon becomes clear that Mija, who lives in the mountains with her grandfather, has developed a strong Bond with Okja. Okja servs as Mija's constant and loyal companion. The two play together, and Mija believes that her grandfather plans to purchase the pig so that Okja can continue her idyllic life in Korea.

But even grandpa can't be trusted: He has no intention of keeping Okja from becoming someone's dinner -- or in the case of this pig, dinner for a multitude of consumers.

The company is represented by its CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton); a fading TV celebrity (Jake Gyllenhaal); and the company's smooth-talking flak (Giancarlo Esposito).

It doesn't take much italicizing by Bong for us to know that this trio -- coupled with Lucy's twin sister (also Swinton) -- represents the soulless evil of contemporary life.

An animal rights group led by the super-sincere but still conniving Jay (Paul Dano) also joins the fray, a group with its own agenda.

I can't say that the giant animated pig looks exactly like an inflated version of the real thing, but it quickly becomes apparent that Okja has a heroic, self-sacrificial streak that makes her even more of a pal to Mija. Only the motives of animal and girl show anything close to unalloyed purity.

A simple plot finds company reps traveling to Korea to bring Okja to New York for a competition to determine which of the company's many genetically modified pigs qualifies as best of the breed, a major PR stunt.

The rest of the movie follows Mija's efforts to reunite with Okja and return to the uncorrupted simplicity of mountain life.

The grown-up, non-pig performances tend toward exaggeration bordering on caricature. Gyllenhaal, for example, speaks in a distractingly odd voice. Always clad in shorts, his character looks like a demented kid who has gone off the rails at summer camp.

Don't mistake Okja for a kids' movie, though. Among other dark moments, Bong includes a harrowing trip to a slaughterhouse where Okja is supposed to meet her terrible fate.

Fat with thematic intentions, Bong's movie never quite scores a bullseye. It should be seen as a kind of irresistible oddity that hammers home its message (or messages) without much finesse but is made watchable by the bond between a girl and a pig that only the cruelest carnivore ever would want to eat.

The point: In a world dominated by commerce and self-interest, the real pigs are all walking on two legs.
Okja bows on Netflix and is available in limited theatrical settings.

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