Studio: Netflix
Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Jun 28, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Okja received a rare distinction during its premiere at Cannes last month: it was booed before it even started. This was thanks to the Netflix logo that popped up as the film began, a thumb in the eye of all cinephiles who blame streaming platforms for the decline of the traditional theatrical experience. Ignoring the tension between the purity of cinema and the inevitability of technological advancement, it’s a shame that Okja will not be granted a wide theatrical release, if only due to how strange it is compared to most films playing in American multiplexes this summer.

The newest film from Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho bears some key resemblances to his previous effort, the 2013 sci-fi adventure Snowpiercer. Chief among those resemblances is the difficulty of summing up the premise, but here it goes: Twenty-six newly discovered “super-pigs” are distributed to farmers around the world by the Mirando Corporation as part of a global competition to raise the biggest, healthiest animal over a ten-year span, thereby normalizing and endearing humanity to a revolutionary new food source. When Okja – the super-pig raised by a farmer in rural South Korea – is reacquired by the corporation, Mija – a young girl who has befriended her over the last decade – sets out on a quest to rescue her. Her mission takes her to New York City, where she falls in with a group of animal rights extremists set on bringing down Mirando for good.

“That sounds nothing like Snowpiercer!”, one might say. Plot-wise no, but it features many of the same narrative and thematic elements as Bong’s English language debut. Both are centered around highly determined protagonists on near-impossible quests who eventually discover that they are pawns in a much greater struggle. Both broadly critique the lengths to which the rich will go to appear benevolent while building their fortunes upon the suffering of the poor. Both feature Tilda Swinton as a bucktoothed nitwit who serves as the grinning mouthpiece of capitalism run amok. Where Snowpiercer synthesized these elements into a relentless action film, Okja plays like the darker version of every Disney film about a plucky kid and their animal sidekick. The casting of twelve-year old Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija does a good job of anchoring a film as sprawling and goofy as Okja. Possessing the perfect balance of stubborn perseverance and short-sighted decision-making, Ahn feels like an actual child rather than a tiny adult, which is always a tough frequency to dial into when it comes to adult films with kid protagonists. Less successful is the titular creature itself. Designed as a hippo-sized cross between a pig and a dog, Okja is cute and charming enough as a character but never really succeeds as a special effect. Given the size and prominence of Okja throughout the film, she’s a bit too weightless in her physicality and cartoonish in her movements to ever fully sell the idea that she’s an actual animal rather than a computer construct.

Okja’s lack of realism may not be a problem for those who embrace the madcap tone of the film’s action sequences and supporting characters. As mentioned, the standout is Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando, a jittery, PR-obsessed CEO who dresses and emotes like a Japanese gameshow host. Less successful is Jake Gyllenhaal as her flunky, Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a popular Steve Irwin-style animal show host turned washed-up drunk. One of the most talented and dedicated performers of his generation, Gyllenhaal overshoots the landing on Dr. Johnny, playing him as a spindly-limbed, squeaky-voiced maniac that can’t be taken seriously once his villainous nature is brought to the forefront. The action sequences blend Looney Tunes-style pratfalls with police brutality and factory farming, all of which falls in line with Bong’s established pattern of leavening his grim social prognoses with sci-fi absurdity. For all its messy tonal whiplash, Okja is an entertaining and occasionally thoughtful adventure tale that will hopefully find an audience on Netflix, if not the theaters. 

Author rating: 6/10

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