Monday, July 3, 2017

Okja is two hours of Bong Joon-ho's usual boldness, plus Jake Gyllenhaal doing an odd Marvin Tikvah impression

This is the seventh of 12 or 13 all-new blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis until this blog's final post in December 2017.

I love the work of Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. Based on a real-life serial-killer case that remains unsolved, 2003's Memories of Murder, the second feature film from "Director Bong," intriguingly takes the standard "grisly serial-killer case psychologically damages the detectives on the case" thriller and expands its scope so that it morphs into a dark comedy about the ineptitude of institutions like the police, and it's so critical of institutions you'd expect David Simon to have had a hand in writing it. The Host, Bong's 2006 follow-up to Memories of Murder, became South Korea's biggest box-office hit ever by effectively mashing up the monster movie genre with dysfunctional family comedy and trenchant satire about both Korean and American institutions. Mother, Bong's 2009 whodunit about a mentally challenged prime suspect in a small-town murder case, is a worthy addition to the pantheon of twisted movies to watch on Mother's Day like Psycho and Serial Mom. Snowpiercer, a rare dystopian sci-fi flick that takes place in perpetual snowfall rather than being drenched in acid rain or set against orange desert landscapes, is both an inventive take on class warfare and 2014's most mesmerizing blockbuster starring a white guy named Chris.

These are all darkly comic films with a recurring disdain for either broken institutions or corporate malfeasance. So I was prepared to dislike the made-for-Netflix Okja, a globetrotting fantasy film that finds Bong venturing into Free Willy territory for a story about a Korean farm kid's bond with a genetically modified female "superpig"--an empathetic creature that behaves less like a pig and more like a dog/hippo hybrid--she wants to save from the slaughterhouse. Has Bong the sharp satirist gone all soft and cuddly on us?

Nah, not really. For his first family-friendly film since The Host (its R rating in America is, by the way, overblown--the original Gremlins is grislier than The Host--and I think its bittersweet ending had a lot to do with it being slapped with an R), Bong takes on the GMO industry and two-faced corporate culture, and his satirical vision of a feud between animal rights activists and Mirando, a Monsanto-style corporation with a deceptively sunny disposition, is slightly darker than I expected from a film that spends much of the first half-hour in idyllic, nearly dialogue-less rural splendor that's visually inspired by My Neighbor Totoro.

My Neighbor Totoro

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about the amount of F-bombs freely tossed around by Steven Yeun and Daniel Henshall--who play members of a Paul Dano-led "Animal Liberation Front"--as well as by Jake Gyllenhaal and Snowpiercer star (and Okja co-producer) Tilda Swinton, who's given this time by Bong a dual role as a pair of twin sisters who run Mirando (and have differing approaches to handling the corporation's crusade against world hunger). Bong has an awesome interpretation of "family-friendly."