From scene to scene and performance to performance, Okja is an ever-shifting, tonally inconsistent mess. On moment it’s a shrill satire, the next moment a heartwarming children’s story, and the next moment an earnest activist drama. It’s an intriguing mess, one that is hard to pin down because of how many pieces are at odds with each other, but not everything interesting is also good.
In a near-future world, a hybrid animal promises to provide a breakthrough in the food industry with the most efficient, effective, and tasty meat imaginable. Mirando Corporation sends these animals to different countries to see which one grows the best and it turns out to be Okja, raised by Mija (Seo Hyun) and her grandfather. The Mirando Corporation takes Okja back to America to show off to the people in a big publicity stunt and Mija begins a quest to bring Okja back home.
That’s the core story and it plays a lot like a children’s movie (albeit, one too violent and profane for most children): Mija’s quest to be reunited with her beloved Ojja. Albeit, it’s an odd children’s story where a projectile poop gag is executed during a John Denver song.
The narrative playing against this is one of corporate greed and exploitation. Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) is the head of the Mirando corporation and is desperately trying to give the corporation the breakthrough it needs. She tries to use animal guide personality Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) to make the operation more entertaining and palatable to the public.
The issue is that Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal give two diametrically opposed performances. Swinton is giving a turn similar to Snowpiercer where she’s a scenery-chewing tour-de-force. Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal plays his character as hammy as possible. Slapstick gags and buffoonish expressions by Gyllenhaal deflate scenes where Swinton brings an intense, over-the-top energy.
And if that jarring tonal inconsistency wasn’t enough, a group of animal activists play like they’re in another film altogether. Jay (Paul Dano) is this this soft-spoken, sensitive soul who allies with Mija to recover Okja. Dano provides a disarming, sincere warmth that comes across as too straight and sentimental for a film so satirical.
Even putting away all the qualms about performances and stories not fitting together, the entire film leaves with a muddled message. Is this movie against meat consumption? An early scene has Mija, the hero, eating cooked fish. Is it against the practice of the meat industry? Then why does the Johnny Wilcox character exist? Is it trying to make the media somehow culpable for meat consumption? The film wanted to tackle too many ideas and resulted in saying nothing interesting about any of them.
As a piece of entertainment, Okja doesn’t always work because of how drastically different the film is from scene to scene. There are moments where glimpses of a great film are here, but instead it’s three underbaked films shoved into one mess. It’s a fascinating, odd mess and interesting in ways that most good blockbusters can’t achieve. It’s a film that provokes thought and analysis instead of an apathetic indifference of it falling into the mold of modern filmmaking. But different does not always mean good and ambition doesn’t always make for a better film.
© James Blake Ewing 2017