Okja is an elephant-sized genetically modified pig, raised for 10 years by Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her grandfather in the Korean mountains. To one, Okja is a giant teddy bear of a pet. To another, namely the head of the company that created him Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), it is a massive money-making food commodity.
Okja is, once it gets going, a chase film involving three (eventually two) parties. This chase cuts through a narrative with tropes of coming of age and satire, neither of which reach their full potential.
If the indelible adorableness of Okja does not get to your heart, then this story may not resonate as much as the film wants it to. Director Joon-ho Bong’s popular features The Host and Snowpiercer do not work on complex narratives—one is a story of survival and one is a story of forward movement. Okja is similar, in that it is merely a story of reuniting.
But Joon-ho Bong’s films work with this simplicity by succeeding with sleekness in design. Okja is not as technically calculated as Snowpiercer. It is, however, light on its feet. Movement and pacing in the film is great, even if the film is a messy amalgamation of moving parts.
Tonally, the film is attempting to be both quirky and heartwarming at the same time. What results is a blend of irony and earnestness that is not altogether coherent or balanced, but each works in isolation from the other. Jake Gyllenhaal’s eccentric on-air personality Johnny Wilcox and everything that takes place within the walls of the Mirando company are exhibit A of where the quirk works. And Mija’s storyline drives the emotional narrative very well.
While the film does struggle with its bifurcated tone, Okja still works. The humor is humorous. The emotional moments pull at the heartstrings (particularly in the sequence that introduces Okja). The chase sequence in the middle is energetic and brilliantly staged. It is a film with a lot of energy, even if that energy gets misplaced on characters and plot points that don’t serve the larger, more satisfying whole.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)