Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder
Okja: Homage Done Right
Written Review by David Carter
There are lots of imitators but there’s only one Steven Spielberg. Say what you want about the man and his movies, he’s one of the most well regarded and simultaneously (most) financially successful filmmakers of this or any generation. The side effect of this success and renown spawned swaths of eager young filmmakers to try and copy what the man does for years, specifically what he was doing in the 80’s and early 90’s. You rarely see people riff on late 70’s and mid 00’s Spielberg. It’s ranged from Roland Emmerich’s hollow attempts at making big bombastic action films in his style (Independence Day, Godzilla) with about half as much craft and care Spielberg puts into those big movies, to J.J. Abrams and the Duffer Brothers (Super 8, Stranger Things) trying to crib the childlike awe and whimsy of movies like E.T. and Poltergeist but lacking the danger and subtext those movies had loads of. The copycats come out to play but sometimes they get caught up in the alluring aesthetic catnip.
However, there are a handful of directors that have successfully taken what makes Spielberg such a great director and applied it to their own sensibilities. These aren’t copycats so much as they’re disciples. Let me put it this way, it’s less Stanley Donen making a Hitchcock movie with Charade and more Brian De Palma doing… well, his whole career. I’m talking about people who take elements, ideas, flourishes and then filter them through ideals, cultures, backgrounds, and visions. There are a handful of directors that have done this with Spielberg successfully. Joe Cornish’s alien invasion action-thriller Attack the Block is a great display of Spielberg’s penchant for propulsive narratives about hard-luck and flawed characters battling their way through stacked odds (Raiders of the Lost Ark, War of the Worlds) and filters it through the perspective of low-income kids of color who have all been written off by society. Or Stephen Chow’s CJ7, a film about a boy discovering an alien creature. It’s a Stephen Chow movie through and through (absurd gags, lowbrow jokes) but touches on the complex relationships between fathers and sons that run through so many of Spielberg’s movies. Okja looks to be the next Amblin (Spielberg’s production company) inspired film that carries the influence without blatant homage and rip-off, but would you expect less from master filmmaker Bong Joon-ho?
10 years ago the Mirando Corporation, a company known most infamously by its generations of savage and unconscionable leadership, is now lead by the kooky and slightly naive Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton who unsurprisingly almost steals the movie in the opening scene). She is there to change the company’s image and decides that the best way to do this is to use its power to make a solution for world hunger. After discovering a species of pig in Chile, Lucy decides to start genetically engineer them since they grow to such enormous sizes. She also decides to host a contest by sending baby “super pigs” all over the world to be raised specifically to different cultural methods. After 10 years the best super pig will be crowned. One of the creatures ends up in the mountains of South Korea with a farmer and his granddaughter named Mija (played by the wonderful Seo-Hyun Ahn). 10 years later we see that Mija and the super pig Okja are inseparable. They go on dangerous adventures together and care for each other. When the eccentric zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal pretty much then steals the movie back from Swinton) shows up and judges Okja as the best super pig, Mija doesn’t know that Okja is going to be taken away. Mija does everything in her power to get Okja back including unwittingly joining forces with A.L.F (Animal Liberation Force), a group of animal rights activist led by the soft spoken yet oddly sympathetic Jay (Paul Dano NOT playing a creep). As Mija goes deeper to get back Okja she learns about the nastiness of a world that seems so alien to the small and beautiful world her and Okja share.
It’ is “a boy and his dog” style premise (well, more like “a girl and her super pig”). A child and their wonderful, intelligent and magical creature are swept up into event’s they can’t control, but move and change the people around them on their journey. The characters they meet are as colorful and vibrant as the world is dangerous. They all seem narrow minded and two dimensional when we meet them but as the movie progresses you learn that everyone is putting on a show to deal with the tough decisions and world they operate in. Lucy Mirando is doing damage control and operating within an inhumane system, but she truly believes what she’s doing is for the good of the world despite telling some little white lies. Jay and A.L.F come off as PETA style terrorist when we meet them, but as the film progresses they learn that the feelings and concerns of one person can be more important than an agenda that will have collateral damage. Mija’s story is one about a loss of innocence while not compromising your core beliefs. You can easily see that once upon a time Lucy was much like Mija but had to compromise to the point that she’s nothing like our little hero.
This theme of innocence lost in a scary world vs belief in decent core values is what makes this so much in the canon of Spielberg stories past the obvious whimsy of a kid on a journey for the beloved pet. E.T., A.I., Empire of the Sun, and even Saving Private Ryan all tackle this idea. However, master filmmaker Bong Joon-ho puts his uniquely complicated spin on it. Bong has a penchant for complicated family dynamics and a complicated antagonist. Mija has a strained relationship with her grandfather because he wasn’t able to keep Okja in his possession, though he tried. He just wants what’s best for her without understanding what she wants. A.L.F becomes her surrogate family for a large part of the film. Lucy Mirando (and latter another antagonist) seem pretty cut dry as duplicitous people but as mentioned earlier, they’re just doing their best within an unforgiving system (similar to the antagonist of Bong’s Snowpiercer). Even Johnny Wilcox is a casualty of the system that made him famous, albeit slightly more toxic and unsympathetic at times. This is all to say the movie is a perfect synthesis of one director’s vision and another’s influence to create something that looks and feels fresh.
There’s so much more that could be said about Okja, from its incredibly vibrant score from composer Jaeil Jung (and hat tip to its soundtrack choices) to it’s great supporting cast of characters I didn’t even get to (Shirley Henderson, Steven Yeun, and Giancarlo Esposito to name a few) or how the movie looks incredible from the way it’s shot by the stellar Darius Khondji all the way to its costume design (Gyllenhaal’s outfits alone are worth the price of admission). Sure Okja occasionally tips into “meat is murder” propaganda and it’s entertaining yet jarring tonal shifts don’t help the point sometimes, but it’s a vast improvement over netflix’s other prestige original movie and incredible film in its own right.