UK Release Date: 28th June 2017
Runtime: 125 minutes
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writer: Bong Joon-ho, Jon Ronson
Starring: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Lily Collins, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Shirley Henderson
Synopsis: A young girl bonds with a superpig on loan from an enormous food corporation and goes on the run to rescue her pet when the company tries to take her back to be killed for food.
Okja is a combination of a lot of different things. From a filmmaking perspective, this is Netflix’s first big jump into heavily marketed, big-budget original filmmaking that isn’t just buying the rights for something that premiered at Sundance, or getting the UK cinema rights for a US flop like recent release The Circle. With this release, from beloved South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, the online streaming service that has slowly taken over television has tried to appease a lot of masters.
It’s got the star power in Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano and Tilda Swinton to sell this to the masses, but also the arthouse writer-director and co-writer, in Jon Ronson, to sell it to festivals. It is those split agendas, and the innovative nature of the format, that brought the film so much press attention at Cannes, but that conflict between what is broad and what is not doesn’t end in the pre-publicity. Okja‘s own internal war over those two ideas gives it its successes, but also its uncertainty.
Swinton plays Lucy Mirando – the head of a corporation trying to address a world hunger problem by sending superpigs to farmers across the world for 10 years. Aided by Gyllenhaal’s Johnny Wilcox, a TV personality, the hope is that these super pigs can become the first generation in a new line of food. On a Korean farm, young girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) befriends her superpig, Okja, and tries desperately to prevent the corporation from taking the pig back to the United States, where the company’s motives are brought into question.
Okja is first and foremost an ambitious story. The beautifully rendered, larger-than-life super pig is involved in multiple chase scenes in different rural areas, cities and continents. The relationship between Mija and her pig is what the start of the movie is dedicated to, and it plays out as a lovely story between child and pet. The problems begin when this wholesome story, told with a quirky eye for comedy reminiscent of Wes Anderson and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, meets the movie’s more sinister elements.
As well as corporate interests, Okja attracts the attention of a group of animal rights activists led by Dano. What then unfurls is a much bigger story about genetic modification, animal torture and questions about the nature of mass-produced food. These are big issues to tackle and Okja certainly commits to an unflinching approach to showcasing food production and how ethics are dispatched in favour of corporate greed, which we see through the eyes of the cute bond we spent the movie’s first act growing to care for.
However, it’s in trying to marry up these conflicting ideas – quirky, cute comedy with a horrific depiction of a super pig concentration camp and a few bits of police brutality thrown in – that the movie struggles to assert itself. Its final act may enthral some, while it leaves others baffled about how they got there. There’s no doubt this raises questions. Indeed, the very nature of these different styles and tones can be seen as a deliberate attempt to evoke strong feelings as well as lampooning corporate and activist culture. However, while enjoyable, ultimately this super pig struggles to carry itself under its own weight.
Pop or Poop?
Okja deserves immense credit for being arguably the most ambitious film released under the Netflix banner and Bong Joon-ho certainly leaves his mark in the Wes Anderson-style tone of the early scenes. Ahn Seo-hyun forms an adorable bond with her CGI co-star that resonates when he is taken away for corporate interests.
The film falls apart somewhat when it attempts to take on more sophisticated and dark subject material, with the weight of its message somewhat trampling over the simpler charm of the first half.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.