“Globalization is producing nascent experiments in multicultural filmmaking; some miss the mark while others, such as Bong’s Okja, present true creativity and collaboration.”
Title: Okja (2017)
Director: Joon-ho Bong 👨🏻🇰🇷
Writers: Joon-ho Bong 👨🏻🇰🇷 and Jon Ronson 👨🏼🇬🇧
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Okja is a wacky, strange comedy with a heavy-handed moral about valuing the natural world over the plastic excesses of modern culture. A fine thesis, to be sure—but the sheer mania of the film, bouncing from Jake Gyllenhaal’s ear-piercing falsetto to sporadic bursts of violence to nurturing moments between a young child and her oversized animal companion, delivers vertigo rather than stirring any empathy, which I suspect was the point of the film.
Still, while Okja didn’t gel for me I always appreciate directors willing to take risks. I’m glad they seem to have paid off for director Joon-ho Bong and for Netflix; critics have mostly given Okja the thumbs up, and so I’ll tick my score in this category up towards the 7.4/10 average on Rotten Tomatoes.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
My favorite parts of this film were the female characters. The young girl, Mija (played by Seo-Hyun Ahn), is the pillar of sanity in a clownish world. As the main character, she plays the moral compass and hero, single-mindedly sprinting, clawing, and fighting her way to her beloved pet, Okja.
Lucy Mirando, CEO of Mirando Corporation (played by Tilda Swinton), is a doll-like character who hides her issues with her father and older sister behind grandiose, over-the-top presentations. I will say, I’m still a bit burned by Swinton taking a whitewashed role in Marvel’s Dr. Strange—wherein she dresses like an Asian monk—so seeing her don a Chanel-made version of a traditional Korean hanbok earned a bit of a side-eye from me.
That being said, both Lucy and her sister Nancy (also played by Swinton) were enjoyable characters, flamboyant and satirical without devolving into the screeching and squawking that typified Gyllenhaal’s role as TV zoologist Johnny Wilcox.
Okja doesn’t quite get full marks, however, due to the higher prevalence of male characters overall. Even when women have meaty roles in a film, as Mija and the Mirando sisters do, it’s important to look at supporting cast. While top-tier roles are fairly balanced, secondary ones are not. For example, the members of ALF—an animal rights group—consist of five men and one female.
This is a fascinating time for film. A converging, global market is producing nascent experiments in multicultural filmmaking; some miss the mark such as Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, which clumsily slaps a white Hollywood actor onto a Chinese film, while others such as Bong’s Okja present true creativity and collaboration.
With a South Korean and a Brit behind the screenplay, Okja takes cues from both hemispheres. The zany, frenetic comedy feels more akin to Korean or Japanese entertainment, while the commentary against GMO recalls a Western critique of controversial agricultural practices. Meanwhile, it borrows celebrities from all over, such as the English Richard Branson, Australian Steve Irwin, or American Ivanka Trump, and stuffs their attributes into various characters while heroically avoiding the vilification of any specific culture. For example, both the “bad guys” (Mirando Corporation) and their opponents (ALF) both have obvious proxies in the United States: Monsanto Company and PETA. Similarly, the “good guy,” Mija, is South Korean but plenty of South Koreans get in her way as she attempts to recover Okja from Mirando Corp. And perhaps best of all, ethnicities are never stereotyped. Bong recognizes the complexity of identity; I was delighted to read that he specifically wrote a Korean-American part, casting Steven Yeun in the role as translator for ALF.
Listing all the specific multiculturalisms found in Okja would make for a much longer review. Instead, I’ll simply say that while the genre-bending doesn’t entirely mesh from a narrative standpoint, the mosaic of Okja does collectively form a forward-looking and truly global product.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.50
In Okja, we see a small nod towards a gay, male couple within the animal rights group. Australian actor Daniel Henshall plays the character Blond, and his boyfriend Silver is played by Canadian actor Devon Bostick. Their relationship is subtle and both members are white, so this is hardly revolutionary. But inclusion of LGBTQ characters is always welcome and helps cement Okja as a wonderfully progressive product.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.25/5
Is Okja perfect? No. In fact, I didn’t even enjoy the film; I can still hear Johnny Wilcox’s shrieking in my ears. Nonetheless, I am a huge fan of creative risk-taking and inclusive media—in particular, Okja displays a deep understanding of racial identity—so I am happy to hear that Netflix's gamble is paying off.