Korean filmmaking icon Bong Joon-ho gives English language features another crack with a Netflix Original about a young girl and her friend, a giant genetically modified pig, whom she raises in the mountains of Korea. It’s as weird as it sounds, but ten times more lovely – and more than a little bit distressing. Owen reviews Okja:
Remember that guy who made the futuristic sci-fi thriller set entirely on a train? It was called Snowpiecer and starred Chris Evans? No? That’s probably because nobody in this country has yet to legally watch it (except for those few who caught it at various film festivals or imported the Blu-ray from France). Well, thankfully for us, Bong Joon-ho is having another go at directing a mostly English language movie. And this time, you don’t need to search out DNS codes to watch it on another region’s Netflix service.
Okja is a feature-length Netflix Original and modern fairytale about the eponymous 10-year-old super pig, bred by an American corporation, led by the power-hungry Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton). An adolescent granddaughter of an elderly farmer, Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) raises her loveable hippopotamus-sized friend in the Korean mountains, before she reluctantly teams with Jay’s (Paul Dano) Animal Liberation Front who want to save Okja from her cruel fate as a slab of meat on a plate – or worse. And believe me, they truly make you believe that there’s a worse.
Think of Okja as a cross between Free Willy, Blackfish and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Although we’re not quite into Soma or Soylent Green territory, Okja is a cautionary tale that foretells of a dystopian future-present where GM foods are only a few unsigned bits of paperwork away from reaching our dinner tables to meet the shortage of supply. It’s a concept that’s not too from being a reality.
Bong Joon-ho teams with writer Jon Ronson to produce his screenplay, which is crammed with allegories begging the audience to question the ethical and moral implications of eating animals. For every cute sequence with Mija and Okja frolicking in their idyllic mountainside forest getting up to mischief, there are plenty more scenes that traumatise. However important the warnings about GM foods are, it’s all rather one note. The concerns ultimately don’t hold much weight beyond stating GM foods are bad because super pigs have feelings too. Which they probably do. They’re quite intelligent, apparently.
Instead, the warnings come in the shape of evil corporations pretending to do good things. This is most prominently illustrated with the wry digs at the fictional the Mirando Corporation, who constantly proclaim themselves to be eco-friendly, when in fact they’re just like any other business. They want to make a profit but haven’t seriously considered the cost. For Jake Gyllenhaal as the TV personality and face of the Mirando campaign, it’s less a concern about eating too many GM foods as it is the sheer amount of scenes that he chomps his way through. He puts on his best Jim Carrey impression to advise caution about believing everything that the celebrities we idolise say; and, more relevantly, to be wary of the social media “influencers” who we unfathomably believe the opinions of when they endorse sponsored products. But at least Gyllenhaal’s quirkiness adds a familiar feature that lets you know this is well and truly a Bong Joon-ho flick.
Tilda Swinton reunites with the Snowpiecer director to play the approval-craving CEO of the Miranda Corporation and is as brilliant as she ever is, joining a stellar cast in support of the CGI pig-hippo-manatee thing. Paul Dano reminds everyone exactly why he’s one of the best actors currently working and deserving of more leading roles, whilst his ALF crew (Lilly Collins, Steven Yeun, Daniel Henshall and Devon Bostick) all provide welcome moments of light relief. But they are all overshadowed by Ahn Seo-Hyun’s ability to act her chops off opposite a couple of blokes in a wire frame with a styrofoam pig head attached. Whether running amok in a subway shopping precinct, or lounging next to a rock pool, at the very core is a moving story about the unbreakable and enviable bond between two friends, which only works as well as it does because of Ahn’s performance and the blindingly good CGI by Erik De Boer (Life of Pi) and his team.
On a more abstract level, to compare Okja with Carnage (Simon Amstell’s recent mockumentary), the latter arguably delves into the topic of veganism and GM foods a little deeper and with more conviction, albeit from a slightly different perspective. Nevertheless, Okja is substantial enough to feel contemporary and relevant whilst being a melancholic fantasy adventure with real-world implications. Put basically: everything about it feels unquestionably like a Bong Joon-ho movie.
If Bong Joon-ho’s name doesn’t sound all that familiar to you, I suggest checking out his film from back in 2003, Memories of Murder, which is perhaps the greatest crime thriller to come out of the noughties; not just from his homeland of South Korea, in the midst of its thriving cinematic resurgence, but the best crime thriller from anywhere. If it doesn’t sound like your kind of movie and not likely to be your next stop after Okja, and you want something broadly similar, then try The Host. His satirical creature-feature is also laden with messages about the environment and energy consumption, but has proved to be one of the most popular Korean movies over here in the west, alongside Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw The Devil.
Whilst the likes of Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk were busy establishing the art-film credentials of the rising cinematic cultural powerhouse, Park, Kim and Bong gathered a cult following overseas. Even if you don’t recognise any of the names I’ve just mentioned, it’s still quite likely that if you’ve ever watched a South Korean movie from the last 20 years, you’ve probably seen one of Park Chan-wook’s, Kim Jee-woon’s or Bong Joon-ho’s.
The latter three have also attempted to break into the US market more directly than many of their fellow nationals, working with various studios to produce English language films. Kim Jee-woon teamed with Lionsgate to bring the Governator out of retirement for a starring role in 2013’s entertaining crime caper, The Last Stand, whilst Park Chan-wook took a more cerebral approach for Fox’s psychological thriller Stoker released a few months later. Poor old Bong Joon-ho has found breaking through a little more challenging, clashing with the Weinstein’s over the distribution of Snowpiercer, which still looks as though it’ll never see the light of day in the UK.
Okja too has not been without controversy over its release. Its selection at Cannes earlier this year caused mild palpitations for the Festival organisers as the Netflix banner brought more derisory cries of “Netflix is killing movies” from patrons and Twitter commenters alike. The marrying of streaming distributions with theatrical distributions was never going to happen at an event like the Cannes Film Festival, but with its $50m budget, strong A-lister cast, quality writing and free rein for one of the brightest filmmakers around, Okja simply highlights how outdated some of the opinions of the industry’s supposed leaders are compared to the creatives driving it forward.
Regardless, Okja definitely sees the director continuing his remarkable run of form, which started with the low-key tower block dramedy Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and has kept on improving from there. It’s funny, sad, and just the right amount of weird.