If you’ve ever entertained fantasies of Tilda Swinton smiling desperately in a blonde wig while introducing a lorry-sized livestock hybrid to a hungry American crowd in central New York, then your time has finally come. Introducing Okja, one of twenty-six gigantic synthesised hybrid animals dispatched by the Mirando Corporation to different locations worldwide as a test to see which would thrive the best in their respective habitats. Okja grows up in the idyllic mountainous South Korean countryside, alongside human companions Mika and her grandfather. Despite the unfamiliar setting of their farm in the mountains, which is about as far from life in Norwich as physically possible, the relentless summer weather and simple meals that Mija and Okja collect ingredients for during the day lend an overwhelming sense of familiarity and cosiness to the audience. The main reason why this tranquil rural life is imposed on us, of course, is so that the inevitable action of Okja being ripped away from this existence is especially heart-wrenching.
The unavoidable happens, and Okja is selected as the finest developed specimen by its company. Unbeknownst to Mija, the animal is shipped over to Seoul, and eventually New York. What follows is Mija’s headstrong journey to recapture her best friend and take her back home. Along the way, she meets some truly extraordinary characters.
Cameos from a bizarre array of actors, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yeun and Lily Collins, serve to present a larger-than-life depiction of the desperation of the global food crisis, and its solution through bureaucracy and big business. Swinton, whose character Nancy is the face of the all-encompassing Mirando corporation headquarters in New York, acknowledged this method of characterisation when, in a Dazed magazine interview, she cited a need for ‘absurdism, caricature and tomfoolery’ in today’s cinematic and political climate. Indeed, some choice moments in Okja are reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s neon-coloured Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and the superimposed characters of Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Director Bong Joon-Ho’s bizarre and often emotionally devastating work is an intelligent contribution to this emerging theatrical genre.
Another pleasing aspect of Okja is the time taken to focus on the language barriers met by Mija on her journey to the US. Yeun’s position as Korean translator between Mija and her rescuers is at one point spotty, designed by Joon-Ho to exemplify the unconfident fluency of a second-generation Korean speaker. His parting line as a farewell to Mija is subtitled as ‘Try learning English! It opens new doors.’, but the actual spoken line is something entirely different. This employment of Korean as a comedic and progressive storytelling tool is laced throughout Joon-Ho’s work, including his 2014 film, Snowpiercer. The manipulation of different languages and cultures give a unique and perhaps more personalised experience, for the audience, of Mija’s encounters with the outside world.
Bong Joon-Ho’s South Korean-American feature Okja is a stunning combination of sacrifice, silliness and sadness. Tilda Swinton and newcomer to the international silver screen, Seo-Hyeon Ahn, dazzle in their performances of this brand-new original, which is now available to be watched on Netflix.
The Verdict: Four Stars