The National Film Registry has some weird shit on it. Life of an American Fireman is a good example. An early “narrative” film produced by Thomas Edison and directed by George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter, who worked on other Edison film projects, this one depicts the dangerous work of firemen.
Life of an American Fireman doesn’t waste time or expense on things life title cards or credits. It begins with a fireman (Arthur White) dreaming about his wife and kids, shown in an onscreen thought bubble. He is awakened by the sound of the bell — not that we hear it — because oh, Lord Jesus, it’s a fire! It’s not entirely clear, but it looks like the fire is at his house.
This film is interesting from a historical perspective, and it shows some nice exterior shots of suburban New York or New Jersey. It’s also neat how the aforementioned thought bubble is composed as well as how the action is depicted from various viewpoints — in and outside the house. The fake smoke is a nice detail. Other than that, Life of an American Fireman is a snooze — about as thrilling as watching a fax go through. Thankfully, programming has come a long way.
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.
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