Quick! What countries come to mind when you hear the term ‘foreign cinema’? Chances are South Korea wasn’t the first (or second, or third, or fourth or…) that would come to mind. Which is honestly a shame, because Koreans can flat out make movies.
While most Americans might be more familiar with the filmmaking efforts in China and Japan, Asian cultures (and a certain, often Hot Topic-skewing, segment of the American population) have been devouring Korean movies for decades.
Director Joon-ho Bong, whose 2006 hit The Host currently ranks fourth all-time in Korean ticket sales, is one of the Korean new wave’s shining stars. His newest film, Okja, a Netflix Original was released on the streaming service and on limited screens in the U.S. on June 28th.
Bong previously dipped his toes into English language and cross-cultural filmmaking with 2013’s, Snowpiercer. It’s easy to see by the fan and critical reactions to both that movie and ‘Okja’, he will likely continue this career path. Based on his technically beautiful approach alone, he’ll likely be able to pull an AngSteven Yeun Lee and become an Asian film maker that is able to work both domestically and in the Hollywood system with great success. (Speaking of Asian directors who were given large-budget Marvel movies, it’d be interesting to see what Bong could do with a $150 million Doctor Strange movie…though he reportedly wasn’t thrilled with the process of making the much more low-stakes ‘Snowpiercer’ for $40 million ).
Okja, a US-Korean joint production, stars both Korean and American actors (and one Korean-American actor in Steven Yeun) and, though shot mostly in English, about one-third of the dialogue is delivered in Korean. For an interesting look into Yeun’s character and how the Korea/English language dynamic plays an important part in the film, click here.
The plot focuses on a Korean farm girl, Mija (played with a natural and enjoyable earnestness by Seo-Hyun Ahn), and her relationship with Okja, a hippo sized ‘Super Pig’ that Mija needs to rescue form the evil corporation trying to take her away. But the central conflicts at play are, at best, a little muddled.
I mean, the evil corporation (the fictional Mirano Corp.) did give Okja to Mija and her grandfather (Hee-Bong Byun) in the first place. And they did pay them to raise her. And they did make it abundantly clear they were going to take her back some day. And the current CEO (played with a cartoonish but somewhat moving earnestness by Tilda Swinton) is trying to distance the company form their world-destroying past. And, though Mirando Corp. wants to turn the Super Pigs into food, we do see Mija using Okja to catch fish for stew and her grandfather definitely raises other livestock on the farm to eat. We’re also told, albeit through a Mirando promotional video, that the Super Pigs could possibly produce more food for starving people all while leaving a smaller impact on the environment. So…maybe evil is a bit strong?
While this type of complex dynamic could mean that the audience is left to draw their own conclusions and that we’re not meant to pick sides so easily. This film, however, definitely draws our conclusions for us in pretty dark and unambiguous terms. The problem seems to lie in the weird tonal shift the movie goes through.
The opening act, sets up a movie that promises a surreal and heart-felt adventure. The naturalistic acting from the Korean actors clashes well with the over-the-top performances from Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays a once-beloved TV presenter reduced to the role of a current corporate shill (and with the voice of Richard Kind on cocaine and helium).
There’s an early action sequence where Okja leads a chase through a Korean shopping center that is fantastic and simply brilliant from a technical standpoint. Bong, cinematographer Darius Khondji and special effects coordinator Jeff Brink are a fantastic team and I left act one excited for what was to come.
Unfortunately, once the action moves to America, the Korean actors disappear for long stretches and the hyper-exaggerated American performances have nothing to ground them and often vere towards grating. The style and surreal feel of the film became lost in a weird, but not wholly unenjoyable, mishmash of a corporate drama (Swinton is fighting off her sister for control of the company/we see that Mirando’s ‘earth friendly’ claims are a little too good to be true) and a soft-core heist film anchored by Paul Dano (who can play irritatingly sanctimonious almost as well as he can play conniving and weasley).
By the end of the film, we’re happy with the way Mija’s story ends but it’s hard to reconcile the other storylines with the movie we were promised in the first act. In all, it is a gorgeously shot and mostly well acted film that you would be forgiven for choosing to turn off, or at least tune out, once you no longer have to read the subtitles.
Rating: 3/5 Stars – See it for the surprisingly good action sequences, a glimpse at the soon-to-be-a-star Seo-Hyun Ahn, and because your film nerd friends won’t stop insisting you that you have to.