Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writer: Bong Joon-ho, Jon Ronson
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Ahn Seo-hyun, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo-shik, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
Running Time: 120 min.
By Kyle Warner
“Here, you’ve got to try this,” is something I think we’ve all heard from somebody in the presence of food. And maybe we’ve even been secretly waiting for such an invitation to sample from the plate of another. There have been films that’ve asked us to rethink this before. Soylent Green is a fine example, a movie about overpopulation and hunger where the solution is to make food out of people. Food Inc. was a documentary about genetically modified foods that forever changed the way I look at what was on my plate. Now we come to Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, a film that, on the surface anyway, does not appear to be subtle about what it wants to say or do. The characters are colorful, the horrors of capitalism are established in the opening credits, and then there is the small issue of the superpigs. And yet, the way the story is told does manage to sneak up on you. Okja never tells you what to think, never directly asks you to consider a new point of view. It’s a film that makes you fall in love with a girl and her beast, then you watch in terror as the world rips them apart.
It’s a film of two distinct halves. The first hour has young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) living in the mountains of South Korea with her superpig, Okja. The multinational company Mirando has ‘discovered’ these superpigs and thinks they’ll not only solve world hunger but potentially combat global warming as they leave a much smaller carbon footprint than cows. Mirando, under the leadership of the tense and twitchy Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), gives a baby superpig to farmers all over the globe. The superpigs will be raised and then judged years later to show the world the very best superpig. Okja is undoubtedly the best of them, but that’s not important to Mija, or her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong), or to the audience. Adventures in nature and warm moments at home make us fall in love with this odd beast. There are quite a few laughs, as well.
Animal show host Dr. Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal), the friendly face of Mirando, arrives in the mountains and is stunned by the beauty of Okja. And though Mija is at first welcoming to the VIP guest, she doesn’t understand that this means her time with Okja is at an end. While she’s distracted, Dr. Johnny and the Mirando people take Okja away so that she may appear in their Best Superpig celebration. But Mija’s not having any of that, so she takes off by herself to rescue Okja, making unlikely allies with an animal right’s group run along the way.
Then things take a turn. I have never seen a movie that’s all joy and wonder turn into a horror show mirror for the world like this before. The subject of animal cruelty, cruel scientific testing, and massive slaughterhouses becomes a focal point going forward. Okja may be the best superpig but she’s still just a walking slab of meat to the people at Mirando. Indeed, much the world apparently feels the same, and can we blame them? While I don’t know anyone who looks at a living animal and drools at the thought of eating them, I do know plenty who will put the animal out of their mind so that they can enjoy their meal. Okja makes that impossible, at least for two hours. We’ve come to love the big and beautiful Okja, we know what she means to Mija, and we can’t stand the idea of her inevitable fate, nor the fate of other superpigs just like her. The movie does not tell you to feel this way, it comes naturally. And it means something because, though our world does not feature a Mirando company or a superpig species, everything else feels like it’s about us, today. The capitalist greed, the game show tackiness, the lack of empathy, the needy supply and demand. You’ll laugh at first, then you’ll feel horror and sadness. It’s an amazing dramatic maneuver. There is a wordless moment in the final 15 minutes that is among the saddest things I’ve ever seen in a genre movie.
The cast is mostly wonderful. Bong Joon-ho and co-writer Jon Ronson (Frank) imbue energy and life in even the most minor characters. It’s impossible to come away from Okja and not be impressed by young actress Ahn Seo-hyun (Monster), who gives the most dramatic and soulful (human) performance of the movie. Tilda Swinton, who worked previously with Bong in Snowpiercer, is brilliant as Lucy Mirando. She’s a villain, yes, but she’s not monstrous, as Swinton gives her enough insecurity to make you almost feel bad for her. Swinton and Bong can make movies together forever and that’d be fine by me. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) is great as the leader of Animal Liberation Front, an animal activist group who aids Mija in her quest to save Okja. Dano’s character is like a Wes Anderson action hero and it’s so much cooler than it sounds. Jake Gyllenhaal… goes over the top. I’m not sure what to make of what Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) was trying to do here. I appreciate any actor who’s willing to make himself look like a fool or look ugly for a part and Gyllenhaal accomplishes both with the same performance. So, props for that. But I would’ve asked him to tone it down some.
The rest of the ensemble cast makes the most of their limited speaking roles and still manages to make their characters feel full of life. Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) has a solid supporting role as one of the less noble members of Dano’s animal rights group. Yuen and Dano are joined by Lily Collins (To the Bone), a red-haired activist with a homemade bazooka. Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) is good as the ‘normal’ guy in Mirando who sees madness and greed all around him and does not blink. And Woo-sik Choi (Train to Busan) has a cameo as a truck driver that gets some of the best laughs in the movie.
There’s been some controversy about Okja after its debut at Cannes and I want to touch on that for a second. Okja is a Netflix movie (it is one of the production company’s best feature films along with Beasts of No Nation). Being a Netflix movie means that, under the company’s current release strategy, it goes streaming day-and-date with its very limited theatrical release. This has led some at Cannes and some within the film critic community to question whether Okja is a real film, as if being a Netflix property made it, what? A web movie? I disagree with this notion. For while I would’ve gladly accepted Netflix putting Okja in theatres a month before making it available to stream, no method of release makes a movie any less of a movie. It’s like suggesting that an ebook is not the same as a paperpack or that music on your iPod isn’t the same as the music in your CD player. We can argue about whether an ebook should cost less than a paperback—I would agree, by the way—but that doesn’t mean the words printed in either are worth any more or less. The same goes for a Netflix movie. This is a real film, full of heart, horror, and wonder, and no method of release can possibly change that. What’s more, Netflix gives Bong a large international audience, and fans of the director can see his new movie now as compared to waiting many months due to the fact that it’s not playing locally in theaters. We can talk about whether Netflix should consider changing its release strategy (Amazon Studios takes a far more traditional approach, giving their films more of a chance at the box office), but the suggestion that being available to stream Day 1 makes it any lesser than Bong’s other directorial efforts gets a big nope from me.
According to Bong, Netflix gave him complete creative freedom. And it shows. You’d be hard-pressed to find a stranger, angrier, goofier, more thought-provoking modern genre movie than Bong’s movie about superpigs. The shifts in tone will put some people off, and others simply won’t want to acknowledge what Okja has to say. But for those who can handle a movie that goes in all directions and talks about some ugly truths, Okja is pretty dang special. It’s not uncommon for a monster movie to suggest that ‘man is the real monster’ but rarely has that ever felt truer than when watching Okja. I’ll now repeat my first lines of this review: you’ve got to try this.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8/10