movie reviews July 2017


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Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Like its titular creature, Okja, the latest film (streaming on Netflix) from South Korean co-writer/director Bong Joon Ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), is a mash-up of peculiar parts, which never convincingly fit.

The fictional creature is a genetically engineered pig, a creation of the ruthless Mirando Corporation (the similarity to Monsanto is no coincidence), an agri-business trying to change it's public face by offering a food product with an appealing face. Okja is one of twenty-six such piglets distributed around the world to be raised in disparate climates, then gathered together again ten years later for a beauty contest, the winner of which gets the honor of leading its brethren to the slaughterhouse.

If that seems to make little sense as a business strategy (or as a film premise), get used to it because the world in which Okja unfolds is dictated more by plot requirements and polemics than any consistent internal logic. Yet as presented by CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) in a parody of the sort of tech launches popularized by Apple, it all breezes by in a swirl of references to "love," "care," and "the environment." As it turns out, this is the film's most restrained satire.

Ten years later, a massive mature Okja is introduced as the pet of preadolescent Mija (Seo-hyeon Ahn), an orphan being raised by her dotty grandfather in the wooded mountains of Korea. Looking like a hippo whose head has been replaced with that of Falkor the Luck Dragon from The Neverending Story, Okja has become Mija's constant companion as she traverses the mountainside. This portion of the film works best, relying as it does on Ahn's fine, understated acting and special effects that, if not entirely convincing, make Okja appropriately endearing.

This bucolic existence is destroyed when Mirando comes calling for their property in the form of Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a Steve Irwin-style TV zoologist who's been hired to shill for Mirando. Okja is carted off, and as Mija heads out to rescue her pet, they find themselves assaulted from all sides by a world of adults who are cruel, selfish, and stupid, At the same time, the tone of the movie shifts drastically from a gentle children's fantasy to a dark satire of the meat industry, GMOs, the corporate forces that try to ease our guilt about eating our furry friends, and even the animal rights activists who attempt to intervene.

Unfortunately, the satire is so broad, so dark, and so obvious that it taints everything it touches.

A disturbing scene in which Okja is assaulted inside Mirando's secret lab and grisly slaughterhouse sequences seem gratuitous, especially in an age where the means of corporate meat production has been widely exposed.

As he did in the overrated Snowpiercer, Bong populates the adult roles with respected performers overacting to the point of shtick. Swinton, one of Bong's favorites, plays Lucy Mirando mostly through costuming, including a Gwyneth Paltrow 'do and braces that add a ridiculous and pointless lisp to her dialogue. She also shows up, for no particular reason, as Lucy's twin sister Nancy, defined primarily by her icy demeanor and a Hillary Clinton wig. But Swinton has nothing on Jake Gyllenhaal, whose Dr. Johnny Wilcox is so jittery and over-the-top that his scenes are nearly unwatchable.

The most puzzling questions Bong raises, however, remain after the movie's end:

Who is Bong's intended audience? While the early scenes of Mija and Okja suggest a preadolescent audience, the multiple F-bombs and grisly slaughterhouse details are clearly adult fare.

And if the film's point is that animals’ lives are to be cherished and protected, why do the only animals worth saving here have essentially human features? Why can't Mija save a regular pig?

Oh, yeah. That movie, Babe, was released over 20 years ago. Unrated. Rating: 2 (Posted on 07/07/17)


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