Tuesday, July 4, 2017



Of course "trigger warnings," the controversial labels designed to let sensitive audiences know that the content they are about to read, watch or hear might upset them, are silly ideas.  Works of art, even the most commercial, are designed to elicit a reaction.  Trigger warnings strip away the wonder and joy of discovery.

But if I've ever seen any film that might make the case for a trigger warning, Okja is it.  Visually captivating and meticulously crafted, Okja manipulates emotions with a skill that borders on alarming.  In wild and weird ways, it combines tender and quiet moments of beauty and grace with vicious satire and explosive, violent anger.

In a boisterous opening scene brimming with crazed energy that director Bong Joon Ho uses in flashy ways throughout the film, Okja sets up a simple story: sometime in the future, a profit-hungry company led by loony, megalomaniacal Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) develops a way to feed the world cheaply by creating a genetically modified "super-pig."  It sends 26 of these pigs all around the world for local farmers to raise, and after a decade the company will recall them all to determine the best ways to create even more of the massive, meat-laden animals that, its scientists say, can help end hunger.

For 10 years, one of those super-pigs, a female named Okja, has lived in the mountains of South Korea, where a sweet young girl named Mija (An Seo Hyun) has raised the beast with tender love and friendship.  Like Elliott and E.T., they are inseparable, until the day Mirando's henchmen come to take the creature back to meet its fate.

The team of researchers sent to retrieve the pig includes hyperactive TV personality Dr. Johnny Wilcox, played by Jake Gyllenhaal as an ethically compromised Steve Irwin on crystal meth.  While Mija's grandfather distracts her, Wilcox and his cronies take Okja -- and when Mija finds out, she sets off on a mission to Seoul to find and rescue her friend.  During an extraordinary, hair-raising truck chase through the narrow Seoul streets and highways, in which Okja escapes, Mija meets the Animal Liberation Front, a ragtag group of radicals (led by Paul Dano) who believe the nefarious Mirando and Co. are up to no good.  

As a visual and action spectacle, Okja delivers, and Mija is a captivating heroine cut from the same cloth as a Spielbergian child hero from the 1980s.  With the help of the ALF, she discovers the grim fate that awaits Okja, and Okja the film becomes a painful, borderline unwatchable treatise against the consumption of red meat and the industry that sells us food.

This is where Okja runs into its biggest problems, as it sets up the greedy captialists and sell-outs behind the big "super-pig" experiment as cartoonish buffoons.  The stark reality of what they're doing doesn't match the silliness of their presentation.  Swinton is extraordinary as both flighty, lightweight Lucy Mirando and her no-nonsense twin Nancy; she's the kind of actress who knows how to plant nightmares in the minds of both children and adults.  But what to make of the cavalier way she throws around profanity?  The bad guys in Okja toss out F-bomb like confetti at a parade, a tonally harsh contrast to the childlike wonder of much of the film.

It turns out Okja is not at all meant for children.  When Mija and the ALF uncover what happens behind the scenes at Mirando's company, the revelation is graphic and disturbing, and once the film moves a step in that painful direction, it doesn't seem capable of stopping.  The climax is almost sadistic in the way it seems to revel in blood-soaked violence.

Yet Okja remains riveting -- despite the ways in which it taunts us to avert our eyes.  Even while I was captivated by the story, though, I had to wonder about its intentions: Is it trying to tell a grand adventure or is the goal to repulse its viewers from eating meat?  Is it meant to be a satire about the blood-stained hands of capitalists or is it meant to be a touching story about the bond of friendship?

Okja is never quite able to resolve its inconsistencies.  And yet there are elements of the film that are genuinely remarkable, including a chase sequence that is one of the few that has ever truly made me gasp.  It's a fantastically well-made film that is frequently splendid to watch.  But not everyone will be able to make it through -- certainly not children, who would seem at first glance to be one of its primary audiences, if it weren't for the profanity and the blood.

So, be warned: Okja might touch your heart deeply.  It also might just leave you nauseous.

Viewed July 3, 2017 -- Netflix

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