Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Seo-hyeon Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Henderson
Words: Joe H.
Bong Joon-ho is a South Korean film director whose previous credits include the critically acclaimed films The Host, Snowpiercer and Mother, being known for creating features with a strong subject matter, often with dark humour around characters having to overcome the odds to avert tragedy – his latest feature Okja is no different.
We are introduced through a bombastic presentation to the world to a new concept from the much hated Mirando Corporation, with CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) trying to shed the image of her father and sister before her by taking the company in a new direction of environmentally friendly and sustainable activity – with the introduction of a Superpig, which will be bred by the Mirando Corporation for the sole purpose of global consumption, aided in promotion by television wildlife presenter Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal).
We meet Okja, who for 10 idyllic years has been under the care of Mija and her grandfather – the farmer tasked with raising the animal in their small piece of paradise at their home in the mountains of South Korea.
We see the relationship Mija and Okja have developed with each other, something so much more than an owner and a pet, these two are friends who care for each other.
For those familiar, in these opening scenes you may immediately be hit by the feel of Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro – as Mija sleeps on the belly of the giant animal in the middle of the forest (just as Mei did with Totoro), in heartwarming scenes of this young girl with her gentle-giant friend.
However these moments of a near-perfect life lull you into a false sense of security, as Mija finally learns of the true place of Okja and her existence when the Mirando Corporation come and take Okja for themselves, transporting her to New York with the plan to unveil her to the world.
So then with no plan other than rescue, Mija sets out for her dearest friend. It’s during this that she encounters the Animal Liberation Front, a group fighting to expose the real intentions of the Mirando Corp, headed by Jay (Paul Dano) and Red (Lily Collins), who team up with Mija to save Okja from her consumer fate.
For those who have seen this director’s previous “creature feature” film The Host (it’s a film worth making the effort to see), the journey of the main character going from average person turned hero with an unrelenting force to do what is right will be one that is familiar, with action-lead sequences delivering a mix of danger, suspense and comedy.
The characters here are all turned up to 11 (some being so off-the-wall they wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson film), it’s well acted with no fault to be found with a single performance – Paul Dano as the committed and caring animal rights activist Jay, Jake Gyllenhaal’s eccentric and slightly unhinged Johnny Wilcox, Tilda Swinton (and Tilda Swinton) as both corporate CEO Lucy Mirando and her heartless twin sister Nancy (a clear good twin vs evil twin), but it’s Seo-hyeon Ahn as Mija that steals the show, carrying the story with a heart-filled character and determination driven by her love of the endearing animal.
There is an under-lying message with this film, really brought home by the end of the story, in that our treatment of livestock and our consumption of meat can be something cruel and grotesque, ending with some brutal and heartbreaking slaughterhouse scenes.
However this film has been in the spotlight for reasons other than its message or originality – the controversy that this Netflix feature brought to the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year was something which has opened up a wider debate around the release of feature films (leading to the festival actually changing its rules so as to now only include films which have a cinema release). It was widely discussed that the public should be able to see a film without having to be subscribed to Netflix, through by just being able to buy a cinema ticket.
There has been a limited cinema release for this feature (although this does seem more like Netflix slightly giving way to criticism), and it would be all the better to see this film on the big screen, but it’s a real shame that unless you go and get yourself a subscription to Netflix (if you’re someone without it), you might never watch this film.
This really is a fantastic movie, in whatever way you get a chance to see it you’ll be happy for doing so.
The difficulty in pulling off a film of such eclectic entertainment – one that can have you on the edge of your seat, make you laugh, be a fairy tale action adventure through to coming-of-age drama for its young female central character, with a social satire of corporate greed and consumer culture all while carrying a narrative throughout is a testament to the director along with co-writer Jon Ronson (the man behind the fantastic musical comedy drama Frank).
This story is so many things at once, with a heart and a conscience – a heartwarming tale and one of the most original films you will see all year.