Okja (2017)

Starring: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo-shik, Giancarlo Esposito.

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Rating: TV-MA; equivalent to an R (for language and some disturbing images.)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Date: June 28, 2017 (theatrical and streaming via Netflix.)

Kate Street Picture Company, Lewis Pictures, Plan B Entertainment, and Netflix.

Written by: Bong Joon-ho and Jon Ronson (screenplay); Bong Joon-ho (story).

OUR REVIEW:

When Netflix announced they were not just pivoting into original, episodic content, but also acquiring and streaming feature-length films in 2015, the industry held its breath. After gaining traction with a small theatrical release of 2015’s Beasts of No Nation, which should have been an Oscar contender, but was ignored by the Academy (though rewarded by SAG, BAFTA, and other organizations), the media conglomerate has gone on to premiere several dozen feature-length films and documentaries in the last two years.

And maybe you didn’t realize that. The problem with all of these acquisitions has been that Netflix largely uploads and buries them on their service. For example, they acquired the Sundance Grand Jury Prize award winner from 2017, i don’t feel at home in this world anymore. and dumped it into their portal in late-February, with zero fanfare. The new Brad Pitt film, the satirical War Machine, quietly premiered in late-May and has already been forgotten, while the numerous acquisitions of independent film projects may sound good on paper, but in reality, these movies just become another square box to click amid a sea of thousands of other nondescript options on the Netflix home screen.

With Okja, the studio has decided to do a little more work. They sent talent to late-night talk shows, they took out ads on television and in print, and they actually put some sweat equity into making sure people were aware that this film existed. After viewing it, Okja deserves more than it has received, because if handled correctly, this is a polarizing, provocative comedic drama with big ideas and a messy, stream-of-conscience look at how people consume, and the steps we go to avoid changing habits, ways of life, and our own well-being.

It should be seen by a wide audience. And the likelihood of that remains to be seen.

Ahn Seo-hyun in “Okja” | Netflix

Directed and co-written by acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host), In a dystopian 2007, the Mirando Corporation, led by CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announced the breakthrough of “Superpigs” – 26 genetically altered creatures. These “Superpigs” are a pig/hippo hybrid with the apparent loyalty of a dog, who will be sent to the 26 Mirando Corporation locations to be raised and grown. A “winner” would be declared in 2017.

In 2017, on a remote South Korean homestead, 14-year-old Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) lives with her grandfather Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) and one of the superpigs, named Okja. Okja and Mija have formed a special bond and spend nearly every waking moment together. One morning, a number of people emerge on the top of her quiet, surreptitious mountainous abode. The first is washed-up television star Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has been hired by the Mirando Corporation to promote the “Superpig” program worldwide. His diva-like tendencies are on display immediately, and his production team arranges a quick shoot, which leads to Okja being taken away. As it turns out, she is the “winner.”

What results from here is a wild, eccentric adventure film that sees Mija run away to try and save Okja, who is on her way to New York City for the big reveal. As Mirando employees work on exporting Okja to the states, an activist group – the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) – swoop in and try to liberate the animal from Mirando’s clutches. While it is no spoiler to reveal that all roads lead back to New York, we also have lots of surprises along the way – Bong’s film veering in and out of cultural critique, goofy comedy, and over-the-top characterizations that keep us appropriately off-kilter.

Okja works exceedingly well for much of its running time. As a creation, Okja, is a joy to watch. Sure, the cartoonish nature of her existence takes a few minutes to get used to, but it is impossible to not get swept up in being riveted by the bond she creates with Mija, and being compelled to root for her survival. This creates one of many juxtapositions in Bong’s film.

When we are connected to an animal, engineered for our consumption, how do we feel knowing what that animal’s ultimate fate may happen to be? As we see the machinations going on behind-the-scenes of both the “bad guys” and the “good guys” – another clever bait-and-switch depending on how you view Mirando and the ALF’s approach to their work and cause – is this just business? Or is there a humane nature to all of this we gloss over? Is this movie an attack on meat-eaters? Or is it discussing the hysteria that surrounds who and what we consume?

Tilda Swinton in “Okja” | Netflix

Okja explores these ideas with an almost glib arrogance at times, but the messages largely resonate. The film really finds a star in young actress Ahn Seo-hyun. She carries significant elements of the film on her back, working alongside a mostly CGI creation (though some puppetry was used in creating Okja), and her performance is appropriately powerful and believable in a wholly fictional setting and world. Swinton is great, of course, but some will bristle at the unique creation that is Lucy. She also stars as Lucy’s twin sister Nancy, involved in a clever trade-off between warring sisters that is set-up and paid-off delightfully well.

On the other hand, Jake Gyllenhaal is a stand-out for all the wrong reasons. One of the finest actors of our era, his bonkers turn as Wilcox, teetering on the edge of a breakdown and succumbing to the pressures of a former television star used as a prop by a big corporation, is a misfire. His performance is so over-the-top and so grandiose, he sucks all the air out of the room and chews so much scenery that he becomes a grating distraction.

The ALF, led by Paul Dano, and including a nice ensemble of supporting actors, finds a nice balance between good and bad. Moreover, Bong’s characters are largely nebulous in their personal convictions. Lies are told by almost everyone, loyalty is frequently challenged, and unpredictability surrounds everyone like a storm cloud.

Except Mija and Ojka. Their bond is almost Spielbergian at times and the movie is terrific whenever they are together. Even when the film takes us into the realities that await Okja, admittedly a tough watch for some viewers, Mija is unrelenting in her fight to bring her friend back home. That human-animal bond is a simple, yet effective universal theme we can relate to and, despite all the heavy-handed commentaries about American culture and consumption and all the rest, Bong nails some wonderful moments when focused on his two main characters.

Okja is a film that may very well disappear into the Netflix ether, or garner enough attention to stay around for awards consideration at the end of the year. Regardless of any acclaim that comes its way, Bong Joon-ho has crafted yet another film worthy of lengthy discussion, which may not always deliver its points effectively, but leaves us with many moments and images viewers will ponder and consider for a good, long time.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

SHOULD I SEE IT?

YES

  • Fans of Bong Joon-ho’s films will love much of what he creates here.
  • Ahn Seo-hyun steals the film and shines in the leading role, forming a bond with a mythical creature that gives the film many wonderful, moving moments.
  • Off-kilter and confident, Okja offers many surprises in story, tone, and atmosphere.

NO

  • The film does depict some of the realities of what may await Okja, potentially disturbing for some viewers, sensitive to such topics.
  • The tone and temperament of the cultural critique found here may rub people the wrong way and cause them to turn against the film’s deeper messages and content.
  • This movie should be seen on a large screen, and for one week – in New York and Los Angeles, you could. Relegated to the small screen for an indefinite existence, the film loses some of its charm and power. A fact that Netflix seemingly ignores or doesn’t think about in its quest to acquire, acquire, and acquire some more.
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