Friends over­come all ob­sta­cles

In the de­light­ful ‘Okja,’ a pint-size su­per­hero lets noth­ing sep­a­rate her from her pet pig.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Mark Olsen

Meet “Okja.” The ti­tle char­ac­ter of the new film from South Korean film­maker Bong Joon Ho is a marvel of con­tem­po­rary tech­ni­cal wiz­ardry and old­fash­ioned cud­dli­ness, a CG fan­tasy mix of pig, puppy and hippo that makes for a gen­uinely lov­able crea­ture.

The unas­sum­ingly rev­o­lu­tion­ary movie that bears her name is sen­si­tively at­tuned to its mo­ment, push­ing the bound­aries of con­tem­po­rary sto­ry­telling and im­age-mak­ing with an ad­ven­ture­some der­ring-do, sub­ver­sive sen­si­bil­ity and a play­ful, peace­ful core.

With “Okja,” Bong fur­ther proves him­self as one of the most ex­cit­ing film­mak­ers in the world, ca­pa­ble of mak­ing multi­na­tional, mul­ti­lin­gual

that ac­knowl­edge cul­tural dif­fer­ences while also ex­plor­ing shared val­ues and an es­sen­tial sense of hu­man con­nec­tion. As in ear­lier films such as “The Host” and “Snow­piercer,” Bong is a com­plete mas­ter of tone, able to shift sharply be­tween com­edy, emo­tion and ac­tion while never feel­ing out of con­trol.

As the movie opens, in­dus­trial ex­ec­u­tive Lucy Mi­rando (Tilda Swin­ton, who also plays her twin sis­ter, Nancy) holds a lav­ish press con­fer­ence in a de­cay­ing, dis­used fac­tory owned by her fam­ily’s agro­chem­i­cal com­pany, hop­ing to re­brand from mak­ers of na­palm to eco-friendly prod­ucts. A con­test is be­ing held in which “su­per­piglets” are be­ing given to farm­ers all around the world.

The ac­tion picks up 10 years later with Mija (the dy­namic young­ster An Seo Hyun) and her grand­fa­ther hav­ing raised Okja, their per­sonal su­per­piglet now grown to an enor­mous size.

In many ways the film comes on like a chil­dren’s story, with scenes of Mija and Okja in an idyl­lic for­est cap­tur­ing in live-ac­tion the same sense of won­der as Ja­panese an­i­ma­tor Hayao Miyazaki (“Spir­ited Away,” “My Neigh­bor To­toro”), whom Bong has ac­knowl­edged as an inf lu­ence, be­fore the ac­tion takes in­creas­ingly omi­nous, darker turns. (Par­ents be warned: Okja un­der­goes some gen­uinely hor­ri­fy­ing treat­ment at the hands of her cor­po­rate cap­tors, as do other an­i­mals.) In­ven­tively shot by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Dar­ius Khondji, who also pho­tographed this year’s lush “The Lost City of Z,” the movie moves from a muted nat­u­ral­ism to gar­ish ar­ti­fi­cial­ity with a co­he­sive ease.

Okja the char­ac­ter is a dig­i­tal cre­ation, thanks to the work of visual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Erik-Jan De Boer, whose pre­vi­ous work in­cludes “Life of Pi” and “Babe: Pig in the City.” Yet Okja seems so real — a mo­ment when she and Mija roll over in tan­dem while nap­ping is as­ton­ish­ing — thanks not only to the ef­fects work but also An’s sweet, re­spon­sive per­for­mance, a mix­ture of wide-eyed and worldly. Through­out the story Bong, who shares writ­ing credit with Jon Ron­son, deftly ex­plores the com­plex re­la­tion­ship that de­vel­ops be­tween a pet and its care­taker, a mix of friend, sib­ling and par­ent.

When Mija re­al­izes that Okja has been taken back by the Mi­rando Corp., her jour­ney from the re­mote coun­try­side to Seoul kicks off the most rol­lick­ing se­quence in the film, a burst­ing spec­ta­cle of ad­ven­ture. She busts through a plate­glass win­dow, dar­ingly chases down a truck on foot and nar­rowly avoids mul­ti­ple im­mi­nent haz­ards — Mija is the movie’s un­stop­pable hero, and her su­per­power is sim­ply her­self, the pu­rity of her friend­sto­ries ship and her de­sire to set things right.

As the se­quence pro­gresses, a group of an­i­mal rights ac­tivists led by Jay (Paul Dano) at­tempt to hi­jack Okja for their own pur­poses. This leads to a slap­stick chase through an un­der­ground shop­ping cen­ter, Okja tromp­ing through stores as if she were still rac­ing through the for­est. A se­ries of re­veals clar­i­fies the true na­ture of Mi­rando’s plans, with Mija’s only goal be­ing to get Okja back to their moun­tain home.

Be­sides An and Swin­ton, the film is full of sparkling, witty per­for­mances. Dano is enig­matic and dash­ing as an eco-war­rior, while Jake Gyl­len­haal is out­ra­geous as a tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter who senses his star is dim­ming. Lily Collins, Steven Yeun, Byun Hee­bong, Gian­carlo Es­pos­ito, Shirley Hen­der­son and Woo Shik Choi all shine in sup­port­ing roles.

Much has been made of the fact that the movie was fi­nanced by Net­flix, caus­ing no small amount of con­tro­versy and con­ver­sa­tion when “Okja” pre­miered re­cently at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. The film is get­ting only a lim­ited the­atri­cal re­lease in the U.S. — though Los An­ge­les res­i­dents will have the lux­ury treat of a 35mil­lime­ter run at the lo­cal New Bev­erly Cin­ema this Sun­day through July 8 — and will be avail­able ex­clu­sively via the on­line stream­ing plat­form in many lo­ca­tions around the globe.

Per­haps the great­est of the many sly jokes in the movie is that Bong and his pro­duc­ers — among them the pro­duc­tion com­pany Plan B, be­hind Os­car win­ners “Moon­light” and “12 Years a Slave” — got a self­styled dis­rup­tor like Net­flix to pay tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to make a movie that en­cour­ages dis­trust of the mo­ti­va­tions of cor­po­ra­tions. In par­tic­u­lar, the movie cau­tions ex­tra sus­pi­cion for any com­pa­nies that make them­selves out as avatars of pos­i­tive change, a warn­ing against the fake woke.

With his lat­est work, Bong has cre­ated a hero­ine for our times, an in­deli­ble movie crea­ture, a story that bal­ances heart and head and a movie that en­gages with the bound­aries of tech­nol­ogy both on-screen and off. (And stay seated for a post-cred­its tag that teases of more.)

Netf lix

IN “OKJA,” An Seo Hyun por­trays a young­ster who has raised a pig given by a ques­tion­able cor­po­ra­tion.

Barry Wetcher Netf lix

TILDA SWIN­TON, left, is the face of a cor­po­ra­tion that sweeps young Mija (An Seo Hyun) into its plans.

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