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Cannes 2017. Just Business—Bong Joon-Ho’s “Okja”

The “Snowpiercer” director returns with tone-shifting satire of world hunger solutions, a mélange of humor and hefty subject matter.
The worst of the Cannes slate is often characterized by self-importance mixed with complete wrong-headedness. That’s certainly true of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless and reportedly even truer of Kornél Mundruczó’s Jupiter’s Moon, both of which are competing for the Palme d’Or this year. But that goes a long way to explaining why unpretentious genre fare can be such a refreshing prospect amidst the arthouse torpor. That’s a slot that, in the competition slate at least, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja should have filled—and for a while, it looks like it may fulfill that promise.
Opening ca. 2007 New York with a garish infomercial for the Miranda Corporation, headed by CEO Lucy Mirando (a blonde-wigged Tilda Swinton with bright silver braces), the sequence is a fluid mix of exposition and sprightly satire. World hunger is the problem and Lucy Miranda has the solution: a 10-year competition where 26 “super pigs” (a newly discovered breed of animal that looks like a Guinea pig crossed with a hippopotamus) are sent to different parts of the globe to see how to best raise the new food source. It's an interesting enough start, as is the tender, if over-familiar section that comes after—set ten years later—which follows a young orphaned girl, Mija (An Seo Hyun), playing with her “super-pig” Okja around her remote mountain home. But once Dr. Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal, in by far the hammiest, most excruciating performance of the year), the face of the Miranda Corporation, shows up to take Okja to New York and the gears of the plot start to turn, the film begins to lose its way, until it eventually becomes a mélange of ill-considered humor and hefty subject matter.
Initially, Bong seems to be attempting an Alexander Payne / Citizen Ruth-style satire in the sense that no side of the “debate” is left unspared: not the vapid cronies atop Miranda Corporation who care only about making money; not the naive Animal Liberation Front (ALF), first introduced flinging cherry blossoms at the truck they want to board; not the mindless mass of uninformed consumers. But—and this seems crucial—instead of a self-destructive whirlwind personality at the center being pulled in every direction, as in Payne's biting satire, we have two pitiable innocents: a young girl and her enormous, cuddly pet. And when it comes to sentimentality, not everyone is, say, Steven Spielberg. (E.T. comparisons are probably inevitable.) The greater issue, though, is that its sociopolitical heft is so flat and toothless — neither provocative in conception nor compelling in presentation. As expected the balance inevitably shifts towards an anti-capitalist tract, a takedown of Big Business, but the commentary is so perfunctory and tired, the brash energy of individual scenes notwithstanding.
Bong’s previous film, Snowpiercer, managed an impressive balance of broad caricature, outlandish action and incisive socio-political commentary. But here, his control of tone—one of his greatest strengths—somehow fails him. The most memorable moments—such as Okja lumbering through the Seoul subway system to the tune of “Annie's Song” by John Denver—still manage to find a precise mix of contrapuntal tones. But the shift from broad satire to grim brutality, especially towards the end, feels queasy, almost manipulative, threatening to collapse the film's already-fragile framework. That’s not to say that Okja is completely wrongheaded; it's clearly impassioned in its convictions, and for good reason. But flat observations earnestly told do not a good film make. Earnestness gives way to cynicism, depth of feeling to rote observation. “It's just business,” says a character (whose identity is probably left unspoilt) towards the end. Sometimes, it just is.

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