Okja (2017) (Review)

When Okja, Netflix's latest original film, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it was infamously greeted with a cacophony of applause and boos; those supporting and celebrating Netflix's introduction into the annual film festival were counteracted by those with a clear disdain for the streaming giants presence in the cinematic line-up. In spite of this, Bong Joon Ho's Okja emerged with mainly positive reviews and finally, a month after its notorious debut, has finally premiered on the streaming service for the world to see...

Lucy Mirando's (Tilda Swinton) attempts to re-envision the Miranda Corporation following the controversies surrounding her father and twin sister. To mark the revival of the company, she announces that a new species of 'Superpig' has been discovered and that each will be rearer by one of twenty-six different farmers in varied locations across the world; after a period of ten years, they will return to New York and one will be crowned the ultimate Superpig. Okja is one of the twenty-six, tended to by Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) in South Korea - but when the time comes for them to separate, Mija is driven to fight in order to help keep Okja by her side in the mountains after learning the true intentions and practises of the Miranda Corporation. Swinton and Seo-hyun are joined by Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yen and Lily Collins as the ensemble cast starring in the South Korean-American production that competed for the Palme d'Or award earlier this year.

Netflix have experienced a mighty high success rate with their television collection (Stranger Things, Orange Is The New Black, House of Cards, to name just a handful) but their feature-lengths are woefully lacking in enthusiasm, critical acclaim and general support. Okja is almost certain to break the cycle though and many (myself included) agree that it not only provides the most original, thoughtful and tender films of Netflix's extensive, if underwhelming, collection, but of the year so far. We have seen a plethora of documentaries exploring the landscape of the food industry, with a predominant focus on the impact of meat and animal products - yet, despite being fictitious when most documentaries are deep-rooted in reality, Okja strikes you harder and more profoundly than almost all of them. Its potent themes (consumerism, disassociation and corporation) may lack a little subtlety, but are wise and heartfelt, wholeheartedly entrenched in our own society but delivered to us in a more entertaining, arguably more engrossing package that should translate the message with a stronger force and front than it ever has before.

Tonally, the film strikes a tight balance: Ojka makes you jump for joy and celebrate immensely satisfying sequences moments before shattering your heart and pushing you to the verge of tears. It is not only through the themes that are so wonderful incorporated into the narrative that Okja succeeds, but also because of its willingness and proven ability to merge, infuse and consider a variety of genres. Fine-tuned and rendered, the action-adventure achieves a startling amount in its 120 minute runtime; moments of pure horror provide an absolute shock to viewers, sending a genuine shiver down your spine, while the emotion presented is so raw and hard-hitting that you cannot help but be influenced by its message in some way, shape or form. Joon-ho and Jon Ronson's screenplay ensures the juggling genres are nailed superbly: with their masterful ability to build the story and characters evident from the multifaceted individuals that populate the piece and the multi-stranded narrative structure it operates on, these successful elements act as the vehicle to impart and deliver the bigger messages and ideas to audiences. You can dismiss Netflix as much as you please, but very few filmmakers are given the means to produce films at this scale, with such deep and formidable ideas at its very core and placing the message over the entertainment and commerciality aspect. I also find it completely thrilling that such a diverse cast are utilised in the making of this film: it is so refreshing to see this meeting of two countries so rarely collaborating in the film industry.

While the screenplay operates as the very first building block, a number of others talents are required to strengthen the infrastructure and develop something more substantial. Thankfully, that talent is plentiful: both Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal give sensational performances as the duo driven to deliver the Superpig project. What they lack in nuance they make up for in how wild and thrilling the whole performance is; yes, some restriction could be applied to certain characters, but the caricatures that are created, particularly by Gyllenhaal - like a Blue Peter presenter on crack - are nothing short of jaw-droppingly crazed and lunatic. Both Swinton and Gyllenhaal provide the spectacle which strangely, despite fears that it would actually undercut the earnest intentions, makes the severity of the message all the more sincere, as when the deeper moments arrive, it is like a sudden case of whiplash that causes you to once again realise the film's underlying intention. Ahn Seo-hyun is truly special as Mija, with her interactions with the animated Okja authentic and believable; she handles the emotion and action sequences with complete success, demonstrating her range and talent as an actress. Keep your eye on Seo-hyun: I suspect we will be seeing a lot more of her in the years to come. In fact, the whole ensemble cast is solid here, firing on all cylinders, at all times.

Bong Joon Ho's direction pulls everything together and ensure the film is streamlined effectively, keeping Okja under control even as the film experiments and considers so much. After a bold and vibrant introduction, his vision remains as consistently powerful throughout, impressing as much visually as it does in most other aspects. Okja's CGI team deserves play a massive hand in the film's success, animating (and curating) the superpig terrifically; it is clear that the budget is not as expansive as we are used to seeing on a bigger screen in the middle of summer, but they do more than enough - and work with what they have - to have us fall in love with Okja from the vert first moment to the last. There is a kindness and love in her eyes that humanises what is essentially a CGI pig before our very own eyes. It's capable, satisfying and admirable work. With great work from cinematographer Darius Khondji and Jaeil Jung's diverse score, Okja comes together terrifically and helps cement the film as one of the year's best.

I'd love to claim Okja is without flaws but that is not the case. It can be frustratingly uneven and a little messy, with some plot developments are clear as day and subtlety not even enter its vocabulary - but that rarely takes away from the overall power of Bong Joon Ho's latest feature-length. A magical experience as entertaining as it is informative, you cannot help but be profoundly impacted by the lessons and messages contained in this heartfelt film. It features a powerful vision, unwavering commitment to its original story - one recognisable and deeply-rooted in our society's lifestyles and approach to meat and animal products we consume - providing a sharp, emotional, textured, cover and biting experience that deserves to be held in great esteem. Netflix have tackled and awarded an unconventional story with a platform to play its story out on, where many other studios would have likely turned it down or limited the scope it could tell the story with. If they carry on this way, Netflix could very likely be playing in the big leagues with their film content, as well as their television slate.


Summary: Complete with a unique vision, beautiful direction and an eclectic set of performances, Okja is a magical film that simultaneously balances the laughs with the tears, the entertainment with the deeper meaning and suggests Netflix may finally have a firm grasp on their original films.