‘Okja’ is a Bold, Brash, Batshit Insane and Brilliant Film That Needs to Be Seen
It’s certainly nowhere near novel to say that despite their groundbreaking work in original television, Netflix hasn’t succeeded much in their original films. Despite promising titles such as War Machine, there are more disasters such as The Most Hated Woman in America, Special Correspondents and, at this point, the rest of Adam Sandler’s filmography. However, the streaming service created intrigue and controversy as two of their original films, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. The former has just recently been released and is not only the best film that Netflix has produced, it’s also one of the finest achievements of the year so far.
The film follows 14-year-old Mija (played by An Seo Hyun), and her pet, Okja, one of many superpigs genetically created by the Mirando Corporation a decade prior that have been raised by farmers worldwide with the intent of becoming a leading food source. When Okja is taken away and Mija discovers what will happen to her, she sets out on a journey to expose the corporation (led by Tilda Swinton) with some “help” from an animal rights group (led by Paul Dano). While the film is most certainly anarchic, director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) has a method to his madness creating something both innocent and vulgar with a lot of heart and brilliant subtext involving the facade.
Like any ambitious satire, Okja has a huge challenge to overcome from the beginning in regards to tone. Much like its recurring theme of the facade, it’s a family film on the surface, but deep down it’s a vulgar and vicious satire, a drama about loss and abuse, and a thriller – all at the same time. Not only does Bong Joon-ho make every shift as smoothly as possible, but he also manages to make them feel organic thanks to the insane world he creates that can easily be compared to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
To really provide emphasis on how masterful Okja’s tonal shifts are, it’s easy to compare it to the equally ambitious disaster that is Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry. Despite covering very different subject matter in two completely different ways, both films try to shift through similar tones of the family film, the bleak adult drama and the thriller. While Okja succeeded immensely, The Book of Henry fails hard because they come off as awkward and jarring due to the film taking place in a more grounded universe, having no true genre to be rooted in, and having little to no ties to any of the films themes or ideas. It’s hard to create a tonal balance with so much going on, but Joon-ho does an outstanding job at making every piece fit together seamlessly by rooting his film in comedy and satire as well as applying his central themes to it as well.
Along with its tonal shifts, Okja also has a lot to say about corporate greed, activism versus extremism, and the state of animal abuse, but Joon-ho makes it all work by tying it all to the idea of the facade. On the side of corporate greed, we constantly see characters such as Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) and Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) putting on a public persona to sway the consumer while hiding their sinister intentions and doings. We see this at its most blatant in the performances of Swinton and Gyllenhaal. In the public eye, their voices are more calm and welcoming, but behind the scenes, their voices are either bitter and angry or grating and manic (the latter especially applies to Gyllenhaal’s fantastic, but understandably divisive performance). Because of their vocal changes in either environment, we not only see why the public is swayed by the work of the Mirando Corporation with the superpigs, but it also truly emphasizes the unethical (at best) things they’re doing behind the scenes.
On the side of the activists, the Animal Liberation Front, we see their duality as Bong Joon-ho and his co-writer Jon Ronson hilariously contrast their actions with their intentions. Despite coming off as terrorists, they always try to claim that they’re a peaceful organization. For example, when they violently raid a public place, they claim to come in peace and when they viciously attack people, they always apologize immediately after in order to look better than they currently do. Even their leader, Jay (played by Paul Dano), comes off as very soft spoken, kind, caring and benevolent. While those traits certainly apply to him, they don’t really apply to the group that he represents. One of the members of the Animal Liberation Front, K (played by Steven Yeun) intentionally mistranslated Mija’s words into English for the group in order to keep the mission of using Okja to expose the Mirando Corporation. This indicates that while Jay might genuinely care for Mija and Okja on a personal level, the rest of the group can give off that perception, but only views them as pawns in their ideological mission as well as to save face, much like Mirando. Through using the facade as a recurring theme throughout the film, Bong Joon-ho is able to connect everything he has to say about both sides to something as opposed to making it all feel like a mess.
Despite being such an outstanding tonal and thematic juggling act, Okja is also a visual marvel that will make you wish you could watch this in a theater. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous as it creates the same playfulness of Gilliam’s Brazil despite the harsh and bleak subject matter. The effects in creating Okja herself are also just as impeccable. It’s one thing to bring a character to life on screen, but it’s a whole other to make the character feel real; especially one that is the driving force of the plot and emotional impact of the film. The immense and very detailed work on Okja’s visual appearance help make her feel real and therefore help us get to know the character better, even with the intimate moments between her and Mija intact. Even if the film is too out there for some, the pure visual euphoria on its own is enough to recommend seeing it.
Okja is not going to work for everyone. There’s a lot going on both tonally and thematically that might turn a plenty few of people off from the film altogether, especially since it isn’t subtle about those either. However, its immense creativity, chaotic approach, brilliant subtext and visual beauty will definitely hit hard for a lot of people. If you don’t want to watch another Despicable Me, Cars or Transformers sequel playing at every theater near you, and already saw other original films such as Baby Driver, give this one a shot as it is so easy to find. Even if you don’t have Netflix, sign up for the free trial just to watch this film. It’s definitely the best Netflix original film so far, and if the reception of The Meyerowitz Stories is any sign, they have even more up their sleeves that could be just as wonderful as this, making a subscription to the streaming service more worthwhile.