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The strongest stories about best friends know exactly what works and stick with that to the max. There is little deviation from that core piece and if there is any deviation at all it occurs to serve and strengthen that aspect of the film. Think of the Spielberg film E.T. for instance, which was about a boy and his new friend; that was where that film lived. That movie never lost sight of what the most important relationship of that story was and the movie wins that much more because of it.
The takeaway to this idea is that there have been many films about children and their special, unusual and in most cases, large best friends. Okja is another one. The new Netflix film from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, has set off a bit of a storm since its release and it arrives to take its rightful place among other films of a similar ilk.
The premise of the story has something to do with a corporate entity who starts a contest to see who among the over 20 countries involved, has the best super pig. The ultimate plan is, of course, to turn the winning pig into a product that can then be consumed by the masses. The initial idea behind this to move people away from processed meat, but what the public doesn’t know is that the theses super pigs are worse to consume.
Of course, this means nothing good for Okja, who lives a peaceful existence with Mija (An Seyo-hyn) and Mija’s grandfather. The two are thick as thieves, but all this changes when unbeknownst to Mija, she must give Okja back to the company from which she came, something she was never told while raising Okja. Once Mija realizes what has happened, she embarks on a quest to get her best friend back.
There is a lot that transpires from the inciting incident to the climax of the film. Some of it borders on outrageous and can make you question the tone the film seems to be going for at those points, but other bits feel much more grounded. The trick for Joon-ho was always going to be to keep the heart of this movie, which is the relationship between Okja and Mija, front and center. Even when you factor in the introduction of the mysterious Animal Liberation Federation (ALF) group and their motives, which reach far beyond justice for just Okja. Right there, Mija and Okja become embroiled in a much larger conflict.
The acting is strong here, even if it might be a bit uneven at times, which to be fair, is probably more a pacing issue than it is an acting issue. Tilda Swindon and Jake Gyllenhaal stand out as probably the most unique here, I would go a step further and put Gyllenhaal a space above Swindon as he turns in a most far out performance that is at times very much over the top, but there are moments where the large personality becomes small and reveals a wounded, even broken man. It isn’t a lot that we get from this character based on what the script provides, but it is more dimension than we get from some other characters. Whatever the complaints about his portrayal, he fully commits to the role.
Paul Dano and Steven Yeun had a strong dynamic that suggested a depth there wasn’t room to explore. Understandably the film doesn’t really have room for that; in fact, the dynamics between all the members of ALF in this film could really be a whole movie unto itself. Each member was solid support. Speaking of Dano, among the ALF group, he emerged as a key figure in helping Mija get to Okja. His scenes with her were heartfelt and endearing. He displayed aspects of a man who was deeply committed to the cause while also respectful of the young person’s feelings and her wishes to see Okja safe.
Okja may seem like a sappy commentary on animal rights that makes a case for a non-meat eating diet, but there is more to this package than meets the eye. There is an extended and excellently choreographed chase sequence, with what seems like strategically placed use of slow motion. There is a very good dramatic escape sequence near the film’s end, which brings everything to a head and an affecting scene where the fearless Mija, who goes head first into everything, bargains for Okja’s life. This girl will make you feel something if you haven’t by that point in the film. Then of course, so will Okja if you pay attention to her expressiveness. To borrow a phrase from the E.B. White’s classic “Charlotte’s Web”, she is “Some Pig.”