Many exhibitors around the world see Netflix feature films as an existential threat, discouraging people from going to the cinema. ‘Okja’ was booed as soon as the Netflix logo came up at its Cannes premiere, and major South Korean exhibitors are refusing to show the film.
This is a huge shame because director Bong Joon-Ho is a director of the truly unmissable variety: a creator utterly unique in his approach, who can spin tone in any direction with the deftness of a spider building its web. A Bong Joon-Ho film has the ability to be harrowing and hilarious, sweet and nihilistic. His gaze unveils a world that is cruel and ruthless to its core, but which never leaves us without hope - even if it’s to be found in the most unlikely of places.
From ‘Memories of Murder’ to ‘The Host’, ‘Mother’ to ‘Snowpiercer’ (the sci-fi sleeper that broke him to Western audiences), a Bong film is forcefully imaginative and maddeningly erratic, a combination that can be annoying or intriguing, depending on your tolerance for extravagance.
He’s definitely an acquired taste.
All of these qualities are true of ‘Okja’, which, when coupled with a brash script written by British journo Jon Ronson, actually allows the South Korean filmmaker to grow even more ambitious in his scope and technique.
A young girl named Mi-Ja (Ahn Seo-Hyun) lives in the mountains of South Korea. Her best friend is the titular Okja, a super-pig bred by the Mirando Corporation as a futuristic food source that’s cheaper to produce and has less of an impact on the environment. With global hunger on the rise, there are big profits to be found in the filling of bellies. Plus, as CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) notes, they “taste fucking good”. To whitewash this effort, the company cooked up a public-relations scheme in which farmers from around the world were tasked with raising their own super-pig, the healthiest one to eventually win a televised talent contest of sorts in a decade’s time.
Speaking via a translator (and alongside actor Steve Yeun) to the Australian audience before this film’s screening at the Sydney Film Festival, Bong made it clear that he wanted people to emphasise with Okja because “whenever we think about pigs, we always think about them in association with food products, like jerky, sausages, ham and pork chops … cutlets”.
To this extent, Bong has sculpted Okja as a massive, intelligent, female animal with a shy and introspective character; strongly reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro from the Studio Ghibli anime classic ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ (actually, the entire film has a Ghibli vibe). The creature effects are charming and, visually, this is a very handsome film: Darius Khondji's photography enhances rural and urban locations alike.
When Okja disappears, Mi-Ja struggles to find her. She gets roped into a rescue mission that puts her in direct conflict not only with an animal rights group, led by Jay (Paul Dano, ‘Ruby Sparks’, ‘Swiss Army Man’) and K (Steven Yeun, ‘Mayhem’, ‘The Walking Dead’) that preaches “non-violent terrorism” but also the capitalistic machinations of Mirando and its celebrity spokesman Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, ‘Nocturnal Animals’, ‘Life’).
The entire film is spectacularly over-the-top, with wild set pieces that call to mind the best in blockbuster filmmaking butted up against some very bluntly conveyed and extremely soul-crushing glimpses into just how the super-pig sausage is made.
It has to be said: Gyllenhaal as Dr Johnny gives the kind of what-the-fuck performance you can expect from American actors instructed by non-English speaking directors. In an interview with Deadline, the actor mentions: ‘I make some very broad choices in this movie, and a lot of it has to do with surety as a filmmaker, and his (Bong's) vision overall. He describes things in the most amazing ways. He once said, “His voice is like …” and then he drew a guitar. He said, “Not the strings of the guitar here, the strings of the guitar on the end. That you pluck at the end that you don’t ever play.”’
Luckily, the entire film is also spectacularly over-the-top, with wild set pieces that call to mind the best in blockbuster filmmaking butted up against some very bluntly conveyed and extremely soul-crushing glimpses into just how the super-pig sausage is made. Bong enjoys abrupt tonal shifts in his films and, boy, does ‘Okja’ have a humdinger! By the time Bong pivots from Hyun delivering a sincerely affecting riff on ‘E.T.’’s Elliott to Gyllenhaal screeching ‘FORCED MATING!’ and orchestrating factory-farm sexual assault, that tonal shift feels more like cinematic whiplash – delirious messiness for the sheer sake of it.
As a whole, ‘Okja’ is a good film rather than a great one, its message too strident and lacking the element of surprise that made ‘Snowpiercer’ so enjoyable. On the plus side, at least ‘Okja’ is eager to say something with a sense of flair, a feat too few of 2017’s “legitimate” cinema releases can claim.