Even as adults, I still believe we need fairy tales. There’s that transitionary period in life where we essentially go from a Disney-esque outlook on life to a Grimms’ fairy tale style one. It’s necessary, especially since our adult lives are full of complex situations that the film’s I saw as a child did not prepare me for. Luckily, Joon-Ho Bong delivers a modern fairy tale in Okja that deals with serious issues while remaining sweet, no matter how many sour notes it hits along the way.
Bong has long had a fascination with creating creature films. The Host and Okja share that and so much more in common. While Bong introduces these creatures, he makes sure to use them as mirrors to be held up towards society. He turns them into devices meant to reflect the monstrous nature of humanity while also introducing a beacon of light and hope. The film’s human monsters wear many faces, like a charismatic television show host or a group of activists whose ideas seem heroic but their execution is manipulative. Bong blends the grotesque with the whimsical, delivering laughs, scares and endearing moments, sometimes all in the same scene. The tone varies depending on the moment but Bong has proven that he is a master at making it work as a cohesive piece in a film.
Bong has an affinity for creating eccentric characters that are meant to disorient and exaggerate certain characteristics. He does it in each of his films but none offer more social commentary than his films with American characters. Both Snowpiercer and Okja offer different views on our culture and society, but Okja adds on top of that his views on American consumerism and even our current political climate. Outwardly, the film may seem like a PSA for vegetarianism, but it’s really more of a buddy animal film like Marley & Me that emphasizes the human/pet dynamic while showing how inhumane they are sometimes treated. Think of A Dog’s Purpose only with an actual, socially-minded purpose. Bong creates a scenario where we see the two battling perspectives (from the POV of the activists and the corporation), but it never let’s us forget that the heart of the story stems from the perspective of a little girl trying to rescue her best friend, regardless of any politics or red tape that stands in her way.
Behind the obvious camp and over-the-top situations, there is a complexity in the story that more than makes up for it. The film has a tendency to forego sugarcoating anything, and instead presents ideas and instances as honest as possible. This completely subverts the Disney-esque story this could have easily turned into and presents morality in Technicolor rather than just black and white. Every side, no matter how close to the binary definitions of “good” and “evil” they are, comes off as manipulative, self-serving, but also with noble-ish intentions. The activist group was full of good intentions, but their approach was verging on the malicious. The corporation was mostly into profits and good public relations, but at the same time, their adorable product was cost-effective and good for the environment. The only pure relationship in this film comes from the unconditional love Mija and Okja have, but even they don’t come out unscathed physically or emotionally after their coming-of-age adventure story.
Joon-Ho Bong knows exactly what character should be genuine and which should come off as a complete caricature. The incorruptible heart of the entire film comes in the form of Mija, who young actress Seo-Hyun Ahn gives a beautiful innocence to during the beginning of the film while also being able to deliver a weathered, world-weary wisdom by the end. Everything we see in the film comes off as a reflection of her experiences in a strange world. Bong also draws out great, exaggerated performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano, whose polar opposite natures make for a great balance. Tilda Swinton continues to show us why she is one of the best character actresses of our time with her second collaboration with Bong. Every character she plays, including the two in this film, always feel fun and nuanced. Their comedic overtones don’t make use take her any less serious than we do any other character. From Steven Yuen to Giancarlo Esposito, every performance is an important piece of a greater whole that prove to be essential to the cohesion of this film.
One of the biggest commentaries Joon-Ho Bong has to offer is his idea that everything in American culture works against children having a childhood by having them lose their “innocence” much earlier than they should. This is one of the many “lessons” Okja has to offer, and what better use is there for a modern fairy tale than to also serve as a cautionary one?