Please Don’t Eat My Friend: Okja

Georges Franju was a talented French filmmaker who possessed the ability to penetrate the shell of his audience, to strike their most inner fears, vulnerabilities that we ourselves aren’t even aware of. He managed to strike a nerve in me with the short documentary, released in 1949 titled Blood of the Beasts, where he takes us inside the frightening events that take place within a slaughterhouse, witnessing animals at their most helpless, an inability to defend themselves and accept the fate that is forcefully placed onto them. It was one way for Franju to state and discuss the slaughterhouse’s function, but to actually physically capture the tragic fates of these animals, to view the immense bloodshed that is repeated to the point where these animals are no longer recognisable in their natural form, was a confronting sense of horror that is far more effective than almost anything cinema has had to offer towards such regards. It has the power to ignite change in those that are equally vulnerable.

Bong Joon Ho and Steven Yeun provided an intro prior to Okja’s screening, but never did they emphasise the dark waters that this film would be taking, but instead spoke of the fascinating concept of the titular creature and maybe a slight hint of the thematic exploration of agriculture. It was clear that they did not want to falsely manipulate our perspectives of the film and creating certain expectations; instead they want the audience to revel in the film’s energetic and light-hearted nature, in which the film opens with a distinct resemblance to the humble and calming scenery found in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and would soon shape itself into a fun chase from authority through the streets of Seoul, ala E.T., as the entire plot revolves around a young protagonist, Mija (Seo-Hyun Anh), attempting to save Okja, a super-pig, from the common fate of animal farming.

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Okja represented a surprising and effective turn for Bong, mirroring a move that recalled Alejandro G. Inarritu’s work in Birdman, treading slightly away from the depressive and dark content that filled the director’s filmography but done so without dampening the weight of his narrative. Okja knows how to be playful and exciting while ensuring that the entire experience is worthy and inviting of our full attention, it emotionally leads us without asking to turn off our intelligence. The film takes on a topic that is particularly relevant to today’s culture and it uses it to charge our relationship with Mija and her personal journey. We feel the stakes that are at risk and we stand alongside her during her successes and pitfalls, wanting to shield her from the unchangeable dangers that constantly surround her. Such significance and passion could have only been sold with the inclusion of the film’s calming introduction, where we were able to witness the intuitiveness that Okja possesses, the love that Mija and Okja have for one another, and its contrast to the hectic pacing and energy that would permeate throughout after the arrival of the film’s complication.

Surrounding Seo-Hyun’s performance is an ensemble cast that would water the mouths of any filmmaker, continuing on from the brilliant utilisation of such an assembly demonstrated in Snowpiercer. In this collection of actors and actresses are quirky performances that amplify the brilliant writing construction of such characters, creating an array of personalities that are hard to forget, often subversive to the norm that defines their careers. Ranging from the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal to Tilda Swinton to Paul Dano, there is much to be impressed here, and due to this, it was difficult to be bored in the moments that spend time outside of Mija and Okja, all existing to reinforce the ideas that Bong is playing with but doing so without suffocating them by the thematic construct that they represent.

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Does Okja submerge itself in great depth, certainly, reaching towards a final act that I would not detail in this review, but will emphasise that it is the source of this film’s grand emotional impact; and given the way it was executed, there will be those that would find the approach ineffective, but personally it gives so much heart that I was able to forgive it. Despite such waters that it treads, it does so without losing the charming appeal of this adventure story, one that can be arguably for mature children, capturing an almost Spielbergian or Miyazaki-esque spirit that succeeds in diverting itself away from complete mimicry, but rather display itself as inspiration for a film’s aesthetic that is not afraid to stir one’s mind even after getting up from one’s seat.

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