Creative freedom can be a funny thing. This is a time where it’s becoming more and more conspicuous that box office-mindful producers seem to be the ones calling the shots during a film’s production rather than the directors and screenwriters. This has left the latter group becoming more vocal about their want for creative freedom, and it could partially explain why so many are turning to television. This appears to be the case for South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), whose latest picture Okja was backed by Netflix. No stranger to production troubles himself, Bong has been appreciative about the streaming giant, which granted him both the budget and creative freedom he wanted. Normally, this would bode very well for the film itself, but when it turns out to be an uneven picture that doesn’t operate at its full potential, then all that is ultimately on Bong.
Bong’s films are known for their weirdness, but with Okja, the writer-director takes it too far. The story is a tonal mish-mash, combining an innocent and lighthearted children’s fable about the relationship between a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her super-pig Okja (which looks like a elephant-hippo-pig hybrid) with a heavy-handed and somber commentary about corporatism and animal abuse that features a incredibly liberal use of the word “fuck.” If that sounds weird, that’s because it is. One would expect Bong to pull it off with style, but this is too big a task even for him. A significant host of unique characters vie for our attention, and the constant see-sawing between their perspectives not only reflects the film’s hodgepodge nature, but also results in a stuttering and uneven narrative since some feel grounded while others do not. Simply put, there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and while each of them is interesting in his or her own way, the film can’t flesh them all out. Bong and co-writer Jon Ronson design the characters such that they reflect certain ideas and themes, but unfortunately, they end up overshadowing the characters themselves. Furthermore, while the first act concentrates specifically on Mija and Okja so that we can emotionally invest in their relationship, I found that I couldn’t entirely do that until later on since it feels forced and obligatory in some parts, and it doesn’t help that the film keeps shifting to other plotlines that are more compelling. The film is at its best when its satirical elements come through to give it a bite and snap it into focus, like when it pokes fun at the lengths one character would go to leave as little of a carbon footprint as he can.
Featuring an international cast, the picture certainly tries to get the most out of their performances, at least from the ones who play important characters. Ahn admirably carries the film with her determination and sincerity, and the way that she acts with the CG creation that is Okja is nothing short of impressive. Playing twin sisters Lucy and Nancy Mirando, Tilda Swinton effortlessly nails the former’s kooky personality and the latter’s mean disposition. As ALF (Animal Liberation Front) members Jay and K, Paul Dano and Steven Yeun shine with their mellowness and enthusiasm respectively. The one actor to look out for is without a doubt Jake Gyllenhaal; his performance is so earnestly over-the-top that I’ve yet to decide whether I’m annoyed or impressed – the only way to describe him is that he seems to be on the verge of imploding from the moment he first appears on screen, and it’s just fascinating to witness. Byun Hee-bong achieves a balance between loving and shifty as Mija’s grandfather. Giancarlo Esposito and Lily Collins are in the film as well, but they’re given minor and – to be quite frank – thankless roles, which they’re more than comfortable with.
This proves to be quite a slick production. The visual effects for Okja itself are exceptional. While there are a few shots that display the limits of the CG work done here, the titular super-pig interacts seamlessly with the characters and the environments showcased in the film. Moreover, its mannerisms and textures are enough to convince us that Okja is an animal deserving of our affections. Cinematographer Darius Khondji highlights the locations – ranging from rural and urban South Korea to the streets of New York City – and their relations to the characters, and he displays his knack for skillfully capturing action, which is evident in a fun and quirky chase sequence early in the second act. The film’s keen sense of colors – both mental and physical – predominantly stems from the costume designs by Choi Se-yeon and Catherine George as well as the makeup and hairstyling, particularly for Lucy. The editing work by Yang Jin-mo is messy; not only does it emphasize the messy narrative, there are times when the scenes run so slowly that I got bored.
As someone who admires Bong’s films, I really wish I liked Okja. I do believe there are moments of inspiration here and appreciate the messages it has to offer, but the lack of narrative cohesion left me perplexed. If this is what creative freedom can result in, then the filmmaker should be held to a much higher standard.
* Photos courtesy of Netflix