I can’t help but think (briefly) about the controversy Okja met at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (I’ll just say I understand the mentality, but don’t concur with the actions taken). I just want to look at Okja the way that it should be seen as: a film. It’s great I get to talk about it for Netflix Weekly, but in reality I’m just lucky the film got made at all. When this came out, in addition to being screened at Cannes, there was this bubble of anger that popped all over social media about the fact that it’s a Netflix production. “How dare Bong Joon Ho’s newest venture not get a theatrical release!” “I agree with the Cannes group, let’s put some shame on this crap sandwich!” WHOA. Back off. First, a huge reason why Joon Ho went to Netflix was because of the ridiculousness he went through with the Weinsteins for Snowpiercer’s release, and call him crazy for not wanting to put up with another potential hassle. Second, he got to make the movie he wanted to make. Bong Joon Ho got to make the film he wanted to make. What’s the problem with this? Netflix is willing to go into heavy debt to give filmmakers free reign (wait, what do you mean Netflix Weekly’s been cancelled?), and while I’m sure there’s more details that go into why this is or isn’t a good thing, the bottom line for me is we got Okja, a movie that made me sob for a CGI creature in a live action film. I’m grateful for Netflix, and I’ve missed writing about their offerings.
I’ve digressed. Ok, back to the tracks.
Okja tells the story of our title character and farmer and his granddaughter, Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn). Okja and Mija are like two peas in a pod (corniness intended), and they’ve formed a friendship tighter than any use of the meme “this could be us…”. Okja’s entire existence is based on an experiment conducted by the Mirando Corporation, and its boss Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has a huge dream of feeding the world: give a large number of “non-GM” super pigs to farmers so they can raise them, and the biggest super pig will be featured at a grand celebration in New York City. It’s a ten-year process, so when Okja wins the honor of being the biggest super pig–which results in Mirando taking him away with the help of eccentric TV animal lover Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal)–Mija doesn’t take it very well. She embarks on an epic trek to find Okja and bring her home. Along the way, she runs into some people wanting to help, but their involvement could prove to be more harmful than helpful.
Joon Ho has wandered into creature feature territory before with The Host, however with Okja he gets much more invested into the look of the friendly giant. The feel of her, her movements and expressions. He had more to say with this creature, and he said it beautifully. Okja herself is the biggest part of why this movie works, and not just because Joon Ho succeeded with the creation of Okja herself, but because he was fearless with the journey he had her take. You glimpse at Okja and how she frolics in the wilderness, but make no mistake: this is still a movie from the man that gave us Memories of Murder, Mother, and the aforementioned The Host. What I’m trying to say is…the man’s gonna put you and I everyone in the movie through some heavy stuff.
It’s a statement against the meat industry! It’s a statement against animal cruelty! Okja could be many of those things, and all of those things, for many people. First and foremost, it’s a story of a true friendship and the ordeals that it goes through. Mija is bombarded with people telling her this and that, helping her and tricking her. Two of the members of a group that’s trying to help Mija and Oka, played by Paul Dano and Steven Yeun, are exceptional as two men who believe in the journey to end Mirando’s super pig quest, and are so passionate about the mission that they lose sight of everything else around them. Swinton is reliably solid as the corporate monster who has more going on with her than she lets on, and Gyllenhaal is gruesomely great as the animal man who goes bonkers (I’m sure that voice he uses was meant to annoy, but it just made me giddy most of the time). These are excellent performers in a well-written story about the meat industry and the people who aim to stop them.
But all of that takes a backseat to the wonderful visual effects that bring Okja to life, and Ahn as Mijo. Ahn is brilliant as the girl who just wants her friends back. Mijo is given and told crap throughout the film, and it’s invigorating how she straight-up doesn’t give a damn about any of it. She doesn’t care about the money she could make for being an online sensation, or even the noble cause. She just wants Okja back with her in the mountains, and that’s that. There’s even a scene where she…ok I won’t spoil it, but she does something only an action hero would do, and seeing her do it is beyond awesome. I appreciate that Joon Ho mixed together story elements involving compilations, backstabbing, and selfishness, and yet at the same time have it revolve around a central story with a goal as simple as a “yes or no” question. He does it beautifully.
Who knows if Joon Ho would’ve been able to make Okja anywhere else besides Netflix, and in the way he envisioned. You’ll have to forgive me if I have my doubts. I’m not happy with the new rules Cannes will enforce starting next year for films in competition, and I’m really hoping Netflix can fix this debt issue, otherwise its production might slow down exponentially. But in the now, I’m just really happy that we got this film.