Four years ago Bong Joon-ho surprised us with his astounding Snowpiercer, giving us a dystopian future in which the entire world was contained on a train. It had a limited theatrical release and those that were able to catch it, were treated to an out of this world experience.
Bong has returned in full force with his latest adventure Okja which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Netflix acquired the rights prior to the Film Festival with Plan B producing.
The film opens in 2007 with Bong’s perennial favorite, Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando having just taken over as CEO for Mirando, the multinational agro-chemical company. Amid a growing scandal, Lucy pledges to the world that she will turn the company around with a special super pig which they have been breeding. Twenty-six of them will be distributed around the world to be raised with the goal of having a contest to crown the biggest and best pig 10 years later.
Ten years later, Mija and her grandfather, Heebong have been steadfastly raising Okja when they are visited by zoologist and Mirando spokesperson Dr. Johnny Wilcox. Wilcox has been on a global journey to crown the biggest super pig. Mija, played by Ahn Seo-hyun, is suspicious of Wilcox’s purpose while Heebong, played by Byun Hee-bong understands all too well the purpose of the visit. And when she is taken away, Mija follows Okja, meeting some interesting people along the way.
I want to get this out of the way, first: I am not a fan of Netflix’s original content strategies; I don’t care for their exploits as a company to bring content to the masses and I really wish they work to bring their content to multiple formats rather than focusing on their subscriber base. That’s a discussion for another article.
Ironically, I couldn’t help but to put myself in Mija’s shoes trying to fight the ever-changing tides of media distribution, much the same way as she struggled to find Okja and return her home. This was never more apparent than in the overhead scene featuring Mija in a brightly colored purple jacket, going with the flow of the Soul rush hour foot traffic. As she gets to the top of the stairs, bathed in sunlight, she turns and walks down the stairs, going against the grain.
The love and care Bong gave to this film is evident from its opening frame to its [first] closing frame. From the mountainous forests of Korea to the underground subways of Soul to the streets of New York City, Darius Khondji’s cinematography is absolutely first rate. It’s too bad that I had to enjoy it on a 13 – inch screen instead of a 40 – foot-wide theater screen, though the detail was not lost on me.
Bong’s strengths as a story teller are steeped in rich, nuanced characters. It’s difficult not to love Ahn’s understated approach to Mija as she struggles to cope with a world she does not understand; our moral compass, her determination is on her sleeves as much as her heart is. Byun’s Heebong tries to stop her, knowing what awaits her and Okja. Tilda Swinton is frighteningly hilarious as the scheming Lucy Mirando, a miss-goodie too shoes and her twin sister, Nancy, who is so morally bankrupt that she will stop at nothing to keep the engine moving forward.
Where Swinton’s outbursts are controlled, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Dr. Johnny Wilcox’s deranged rambunctiousness radiates. During a crucial staff meeting, where Mirando is scheming her way to recover from a PR nightmare, Wilcox tries to remind her that he is the face of the company which she dismisses instantly. The dejected Wilcox plots his own scheme to try and outdo Lucy.
Paul Dano plays Jay, the leader of the animal rights group Animal Liberation Front (ALF) trying to expose Mirando for what it is. Dano’s character was meant as a bridge between Korea and America, guiding us through the narrative and while I thought his performance was very good, the character and the ALF function was unnecessary. Mija could have and did achieve the same objective without the ALF.
The script by Bong and Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) works on multiple levels. Mija’s interactions with Okja mirror Dr. Grant’s interactions when he leans on the Brachiosaur to hear it breathe in Jurassic Park: they are both astonished and connected to the creatures they’re trying to protect. Swinton shines in her roles and Gyllenhaal was cloyingly sweet. The story felt disjointed, due in part to the inclusion of the ALF. Dano’s performance was good, but it felt like an afterthought.
Okja as a CGI character was gorgeous to look at, up close. When seen at a distance or in the processing center towards the end of the movie, the CGI look came through loud and clear, becoming a distraction.
None of these concerns should dissuade you from checking out this timely tale. I’d tell you to go to a theater to see it, but Netflix has seen to it that you can only watch it on their streaming service. That aside, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja deserves all the recognition in the world. It is a great accomplishment.