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Despite possible modest to microscopic grosses. and global audience following aside, it's clear that South Korean writer-director Joon-ho-Bong ("Snowpiercer," "Mother," "Barking Dogs Never Bite") and Welsh co-writer Jon Ronson ("Frank," "The Men Who Stare at Goats") were, creatively speaking, made to collaborate. Their inventive daring here produces the unlikely tale of a human bonding with a pet animal that will expose the evils of corporate greed.
In 2007, a Tilda Swinton ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") oddball by the name of Lucy Mirando decides, in the boardroom of her newly inherited biotech firm, Mirando Corp. to claim her place in the food modification industry by continuing the work and vision of her deceased grandpa's latest animal project -- with much of her smug self-satisfaction derived from her victory in the ongoing feud with her chief rival, twin sister Nancy (played by Swinton, too).
We dissolve to a garden in the mountains of South Korea ten years later where a fully formed superpig the size of a small dirigible (Okja) is frolicing with best friend Mija, (Seo-Hyun Ahn, "Monster"), 13, under the watchful eye of her grandfather as he attends to his work. A sequence with the pair leaves no doubt about the great friendship and mutual reliance that has developed in this quiet corner of paradise, until...
Zany zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, "Night Crawler"), emissary of Mirando,Inc, comes a-knockin' to check on the company's pig, bringing a chill of harsh reality into the dreamy South Korean air.
Seeing the company pig's size and state of health Wilcox declares OKJA the winner pig and sets forth to get her on her way back to the city (for further processing!). Knowing nothing about Okja having been on loan for ten years, Mija doesn't know what to make of the man's declaration of Okja's corporate ownership nor of some person named Lucy in New York City. Travel arrangements don't include poor Mija and when she sees her friend being packed into a truck, she sets off in a panic in pursuit of her pal.
The chase gets frantic and physically dangerous with the arrival of a new band of characters -- the political posse: the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), led by Paul Dano in a study of calm rectitude leading his anti-modification group in a war against unnaturally modified food. Somewhere in here Mija begins to pick up on why all these strange people have been making such a fuss over her dearest friend. They're going to eat her!
Much work has gone into the creation of this state-of-the-art marriage of live action and animation but the selling point is the theme of deep friendship. Bong and Ronson imbue the film with enough sincerity and emotion to forgive the subplot distractions. Until the denouement, when the story gets hurried and confused.
Beyond the CGI perfection of the animal, the emotional expressiveness elevates the filmmakers to a higher plane. It's an achievement that overdoes many an animated film.
Although Ahn Seo-hyun's acting is not exactly awesome, she never fails to bring a genuine honesty to the role, which preserves her presence amid considerable exaggeration as vitally sympathetic. If this film is to generate appeal toa wider audience, this would be the reason.
A lesser adornment is Gyllenhaal who seems well outside his comfort zone and proves, mostly, that he's no match for Ms. Swinton if the intent here was to match her (Mirando) style. That idea makes sense, but he demonstrates how ill-suited he is for slapstick.
The film owes much to the daring, lush cinematography by Darius Khondji.
In Dano, I saw maturity and calm assurance in his performance as the leader of the eco-gang.
The name Mija is interesting in a Korean film whose central character is a young girl. It translates to the short form of "my daughter" in Spanish.
In any case, I haven't been so enamored of a CGI character since "Big Hero 6. As far as that arthouse problem for this film, the distributor (Netflix) has announced that it's not planning to report theatrical grosses, which probably applies to the market area of the U.S. and Canada. Foreign boxoffice is reported at this time at a little over $2 mil. Very poor, but what does it represent? Streaming revenue isn't to be found. So, one might ask, how many of these high cost cuties that contain commercial elements will they make if there's no profit to gloat about?
I think it's grand that someone thought it would be interesting to see what Joon might make when he's unfettered by money constrainst. I'd have been terrified to take such a chance, but I'm glad someone did. While the whole thing is a bit overdone, in the end it's a fascinating romp with an inventive conception for a social message.
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