Bong Joon Ho's creature feature Okja packs in too much

Mija (Ahn Seo Hyun) has to brave the big world outside of her home in the mountains of South Korea to save her friend, a giant pig called Okja.
Mija (Ahn Seo Hyun) has to brave the big world outside of her home in the mountains of South Korea to save her friend, a giant pig called Okja. PHOTO: NETFLIX

The bond between a girl and her pig is beautifully portrayed, but the film tries too hard to cover too many genres and issues

REVIEW / ACTION ADVENTURE

OKJA (NC16)

118 minutes/Available on Netflix from today/3/5 stars

The story: For 10 years, Mija (Ahn Seo Hyun) has been living an idyllic life in the mountains of South Korea with her grandfather and her giant pig companion Okja. But Okja is actually the property of a multinational company headed by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) and she wants it shipped back to the United States to be crowned winner of a super pig contest.

Mija is determined to save her friend and gets some unexpected help from animal-rights activists, including Jay (Paul Dano) and K (Steven Yeun).

The bond between man and animal (real or imagined) has been explored recently in the family- friendly fantasy Pete's Dragon (2016) as well as in Singapore-born film-maker Kirsten Tan's whimsical drama Pop Aye (2017), in which an architect reunites with his childhood companion elephant.

Okja, which was in competition for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last month, falls on the fantasy side of the spectrum.

The titular creature is a giant pig, one that sometimes resembles a hippopotamus, but with soulful eyes that suggest a strong connection with her human caretaker.

When Okja is threatened, Mija's anger, fear and desperation are palpable. Ahn (The Housemaid, 2010) is compelling and will have you rooting for her.

The film is most satisfying when it dwells on their bond. The bucolic existence of a girl and her pig in a verdant and bountiful land, beautifully filmed by South Korean writer-director Bong Joon Ho, feels like a fairy tale.

Yet its shifting tone - from drama to comedy to thriller - is jarring.

This is disappointing, coming from Bong, who has produced excellent work, from the gripping thriller Memories Of Murder (2003) to the wrenching drama Mother (2009). And the superior creature feature from the film-maker remains 2006's The Host.

When Okja is not a creature feature, it is bogged down by the other stuff, from the controversy over genetically modified food to corporate greed and deception.

Worse, Swinton's performance is mannered and Jake Gyllenhaal's exaggerated portrayal of an insecure television personality/zoologist comes across as gimmicky.

At least the activists are endearing in their reluctance to hurt any living thing, even their human foes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2017, with the headline 'Creature feature packs in too much'. Print Edition | Subscribe