(USA/South Korea 2017)

“We needed a miracle, and then we got one.”

—Lucy Mirando

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, now streaming on Netflix, is a lot of things; dull is not one of them. A slick, fast-paced, mesmerizing mix of fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, action, satire, and social consciousness, this film has a lot going on—and a lot going for it. I was lucky to see it on the big screen before its official release, and that’s how I recommend seeing it if you can. Sorry, Netflix, Okja is simply too good for TV.

The story begins ten years ago in 2007: in a desperate but brilliant attempt to rebrand a disreputable family business—to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak—Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces her master plan to breed an all-natural “superpig” that leaves a minimal footprint, feeds the world, and tastes great (https://superpigproject.com). Her company, Mirando Corporation, devises a competition, sending twenty-some piglets to real farmers across the globe to raise them; the company will monitor each pig over the next ten years and declare a “winner” based on the results. Mirando hires animal television show host Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a zoologist whose star is fading, to lend credibility to the project as well as to generate public interest in it.

Fast forward to 2017: Mirando’s plan is coming to fruition without any hiccups, which makes her happier than a pig in…well, you know. Unfortunately for Mirando, a young South Korean girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), whose grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) signed onto the project, threatens to derail the entire mission. Mija, you see, essentially raised her grandfather’s pig, Okja. They’ve become dependent on each other. He never explained to her what the deal really is—that Mirando’s silk purse is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.

Dr. Johnny and his television crew show up at their home in the mountains and marvel over Okja, now a magnificently enormous hippopotamus-like creature. He presents her grandfather with an award and takes Okja to Manhattan—actually, New Jersey—for a pig roast sponsored by the Mirando Corporation.

To put it lightly, Mija’s not having it—she takes off after Okja on a chaotic chase through Seoul, where she encounters the Animal Liberation Front, a group of inept animal rights activists led by idealistic but ineffective Jay (Paul Dano). They make a pact, but unfortunately she doesn’t speak English. Mija ends up at the world headquarters of Mirando Corporation in New York City, completely unaware of the cards she holds.

I went into Okja blind—the only thing I knew about it was that its central character is a big pig. I left more than satisfied: the cast is stellar, the effects are flawless, and the script is smart and strong despite its flaws. If that don’t beat a pig a-pecking, I don’t know what does.

In simplest terms, Okja is about our complicated consumerist relationship with food. As one pig farmer put it best, “Okja’s a fake pig in a movie I watched on Netflix. But plenty of real animals are suffering inside a horrific system that don’t have to.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/okja-thoughts-from-a-pig-farmer_us_595bd1cde4b0f078efd98cbd). On this point alone, Okja will resonate with anyone who’s ever connected with an animal—pig, dog, cat, bird, horse, aardvark. The story has been compared to E.T. (https://moviebloke.com/2016/03/29/e-t-the-extra-terrestrial-e-t/), and it’s pretty wonderful. The final scene, which takes place in a slaughterhouse, is hard to watch—I got anxious. And queasy. I thought of Morrissey!

Appropriately, the acting is hammy; I love that Swinton plays twins again. She looks like a deranged Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Gyllenhaal teeters on insufferable with his wimpy sniveling, but to his credit he manages to keep it in check. I’m usually unimpressed with computer animation, but here it’s amazingly well done; Okja looks as real as the humans. I think the trick is her eyes. Even with its Hollywood ending, Okja is definitely one of this year’s more interesting movies.

With Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo-shik, Giancarlo Esposito

Production: Kate Street Picture Company, Lewis Pictures, Plan B Entertainment

Distribution: Netflix

118 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B


The Handmaiden [Agassi]

(South Korea 2016)

“Where I come from, it’s illegal to be naive.”


I wasn’t sure what to expect from Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden [아가씨], but I’m glad I got to see it. One word: wow! A sexy, complex, and intriguing film to say the least, it’s a lavish visual and narrative cinematic experience. The trailer offers only a hint of what awaits.

Park wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Welsh author Sarah Waters, with frequent collaborator Chung Seo-kyung. They change the setting from Victorian Era Britain to 1930s Korea when it was under Japanese colonial rule before the end of World War II. Confession: I did not read the book. The change is brilliant, though, resulting in something far more tense, exotic, and erotic than I imagine it would have been had they stuck to the original concept.

The Handmaiden is a cutthroat tale of power, sex, and deception in the same vein as Dangerous Liasons, though by no means is it the same story. The title refers to “Tamako” (Kim Tae-ri), a young common girl hired to serve as a maid to mysterious Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Lady Hideko’s authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong) runs the household, which has a crazy library of antique erotica and a basement used for punishment. The atmosphere is abusive and weird. So much so, in fact, that Lady Hideko’s aunt committed suicide—and she still hears her voice at night.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

“Tamako” has a secret: she’s really Sook-hee, a master pickpocket from a long line of con artists. Sook-hee is working with Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a dashing con man, on an elaborate scam to bilk Lady Hideko out of her fortune. Fujiwara, posing as a Count, is wooing Lady Hideko into marriage, after which he plans to commit her to her an insane asylum and take off with her money. Fujiwara has a secret, too: he’s double dealing with Lady Hideko, who wants to get away from her uncle. Their plot involves getting married, cashing out her inheritance, and committing her illiterate maid under her name, after which Lady Hideko assumes the identity of “Tamako”—while keeping her money, of course.

The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and nothing here is what it seems. Things get interesting and go another route when the two women’s relationship takes a sexual turn, and they like it.

The Handmaiden is an example of near perfect execution. The beginning and end are a little slow, but what’s in between is well worth the slightly draggy bookends. Divided into three parts, it tells the story from the different perpectives of the three scammers. We get more information with each part, and just when it looks like we know what’s coming—bam!, the proverbial rug is pulled out from underneath and the narrative goes somewhere else. The characters are really complex, and the acting here is excellent. The sex scenes are sensual but often have a humorous undertone. Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography is rich and layered with thoughtful camerawork that adds a nice voyeuristic touch to the whole film, liberally using long shots and peeking through doors and around screens. This is a film you can easily get lost in.

144 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+