It’s a great thing that pretty much every TV in the world now is massive, because TV is so cinematic that it deserves big screens. Funded by Netflix, Bong Joon Ho brings his newest film with confidence and scope that barely looks like something made for a streaming site. As it is, Okja sits as one of the best that Netflix has made thus far, along with the award winning documentary 13th and 2015’s Beasts of No Nation.
Clearly licking his wounds after Snowpiercer (a brilliant dystopian sci-fi) failed to get wide release for the masses, Joon Ho has gone away and come back with this a culmination of his previous works. Yes, this has the political-social elements of Snowpiercer, the action-adventure of The Host, and the character of Mother, but it is a fresh and original idea.
The film is set in a vaguely similar present day 2017 to now, where large animals that look like a cross between a hippo, a manatee and a bullmastiff have been bread by farmers for ten years in order to enter a competition. The Mirando corporation convince people that these superpigs are a good idea because they eat less, create less excretion and thus have a lower pollution rate, and most importantly: they’ll taste fucking good. In a small farm in South Korea Mija has bonded with one such superpig – Okja – and just doesn’t understand why people might want to kill him.
Here is a film that needs oscar nominations, no doubt about it. Bong Joon Ho has crafted a wonderful adventure film that has scope but also heart and warmth. After the intense, claustrophobic and rather grey violence heavy world of Snowpiercer, this is clearly Joon Ho having a little more fun, without losing his sense of what makes for a socially relevant movie.
The cast, first and foremost, is brilliant. Ahn Seo-hyun is a revelation as Mija; adorable, and able to hold her own against a CGI character. The first twenty minutes of the film are essentially her and Okja, near wordless and the words spoken are in Korean. She, like so many young performers in the movies these days, has a talent above her years and no doubt will have every big franchise knocking on her door, just as they did for everyone else. It’s also a testament that Seo-hyun can hold her own when playing against some of the best actors currently working.
The scenes in the beginning with just Mija and her grandfather are very well done, and play into those ideas of a modern fairytale or fable. The relationship is so true, and so endearing that you easily believe that the two of them live just those two, with this large pig and are genuinely happy together. There doesn’t need to be a lot of back story given, we can take from the portrayal of the situation they’re in. It’s a very well observed parental relationship that for anyone who has ever been close to a grandparents will find rings true, regardless of nationality.
But it’s when Mija leaves the relative safety of her lush farmland home that the film becomes an adventure film, and Joon Ho begins to have a lot of fun. There’s a sense all the way through of absolute whimsy, from the music that plays over chase sequences, to the strange dialogue, to Jake Gyllenhaal’s hilarious turn as TV show vet. The film has a fairly impressive cast, but it’s at it’s best when it’s dealing with the relationship between Okja and Mija.
There’s a lot to like around that central performance and relationship from the strange rivalry between Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton as two sisters who run the company, and Gyllenhaal’s crazy performance, but a lot of the laughs come from the ALF, Animal Liberation Front, who won’t use violence to aid their cause. The always reliable Steven Yeun, Paul Dano and Lilly Collins make up for some strange lurches in tone near the end, but the film is never too wrapped up in anything to forget that this is by and large a story about a girl and her big pig.
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The anti-corporate food message of the film has a similar thematic climax to Charlotte’s Web and actually would probably play quite well to that audience, although the fairly tough violence, and excessive use of profanity make for un-family friendly viewing. But, even so Joon Ho has crafted a well meaning and enjoyable parable about the way we treat animals that has just enough fart jokes, poo jokes and people experimenting with silly costumes to gloss over the moment that don’t entirely work. Joon Ho continues to prove that he is one of the best modern filmmakers that can blend social commentary with genre films that are easily accessible.