Netflix’s feature films have never been particularly great ones at that but the idea that Bong Joon-ho was directing one to be distributed under their name only left me feeling optimistic. Bong Joon-ho only left behind a sign of promise when he transitioned towards directing English-language films with Snowpiercer and with his second Korean-American production, what has come by goes beyond just being exciting. It only wears that on the outside, but then comes by something far more thoughtful almost akin to the early work of Steven Spielberg, drawing upon something far more impactful. And as far as Netflix-distributed original features have gone, Okja is not only the most exciting one of the bunch but it also might very well be the best one by far. And by the standards of their original features, it says a lot for what Bong Joon-ho provided in Okja is a fantastic film as expected of him.
The plot synopsis only sells adventure in the concept of a young girl going off on another journey to save her beloved Okja, a genetically engineered superpig, from a bigger corporation that would eventually go ahead and slaughter her for human consumption. But coming off from Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho has created something sentimental drawing back to the early works of Steven Spielberg but also Netflix’s most political feature yet. For moments of bittersweetness come along the ride and yet a great dose of excitement too with the action sequences, but a ride far more intelligent as a political allegory. For it is in Mija’s story of her own dedicated companionship with Okja, I was taken aback by the fantasy it lives within only to find that Bong Joon-ho has created an almost traumatizing background for what could be a children’s film at heart as he lets his influences flow.
Okja isn’t a particularly subtle film but to some extent it only highlights what works best about it, although distractions get in the way on occasion. For we have the muddled tone coming, but perhaps the biggest distraction of all was Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as the zany zoologist Johnny Wilcox. Perhaps I would only have imagined that Gyllenhaal was directed to act in such a manner but it felt so strange watching him because he takes up the screen in a character that is so evidently ridiculous – only to the point Bong Joon-ho’s message finds itself becoming far too blunt for its own good. Sure, films like RoboCop have found their own anti-capitalist messages working because of how they play along with their bluntness but Okja suffers at the hands of inconsistency with how it handles its own allegory. It was clear where he intended for its heart to remain, but in its final act it falters at the hands of feeling preachy.
Yet as a commentary on human nature, in its own willingness to contradict itself on every turn – that is perhaps where Okjahas found itself at its most effective. The Animal Liberation Front makes a great case for this, with Paul Dano leading the way for them. He shows himself as a man of peace especially on behalf of the freedom of animals but quickly turning violent upon compromise, it wasn’t something that ran only within his own end of the spectrum but it was also to be found amidst the Mirando Corporation in itself. Which brings up another fantastic performance in the film, Tilda Swinton playing the CEO, Lucy Mirando and her twin, Nancy. Lucy has made clear that her father is a monster and she wants to establish a friendly image on their behalf once again, and yet her own methodology is no better than that of the ALF for she openly presents herself as what she claims not to be.
At its best however, Okja retains its own Spiebergian core with the friendship between Mija and Okja. Ahn Seo-hyun, who plays Mija is absolutely captivating as the film’s protagonist. But at its very best, Okja retained its own spirit of adventure within the friendship between Mija and Okja which even turned into the most moving part of the film. Yet in that sense it still found a sense of humour within its core and there was never a dull moment to be found. And as we speak of Okja, she’s a fantastic creation in herself. The excellent special effects work wasn’t all that brought her to life, but an equally captivating screenplay only allowed personality to flow from every scene in which she occupies from beginning to end. But like early Steven Spielberg it works because of how Bong Joon-ho is treating his own audiences, giving them a dash of the excitement they want but also presenting something far more heartfelt at the core through a sense of sentimentality.
The film’s message is a tad too obvious, yet it still manages to leave an impact. But it’s also a great shame that Okja would rarely ever be seen on the big screen because the sort of film that it is begs to be seen on such. Nevertheless, the ride that it presents is one that sucks its own viewers into a new fantasy that still raises questions about how we live our daily lives. It had only come by in the oddest sense but it was not especially surprising that Bong Joon-ho would have gone this far after having made Snowpiercer prior. It finds itself working perfectly from capturing contradiction within human nature. And perhaps its own anti-capitalist message isn’t a subtle one because of the rather jarring shifts in tone, but who needed subtlety again if RoboCop had used such bluntness to a greater effect. Because the bravery that can be felt within itself all throughout only allows for it to be a great risk on Netflix’s part, and thus what is arguably their best original feature by far.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Netflix.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay by Bong Joon-ho, Jon Ronson
Produced by Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Lewis Taewan Kim, Dooho Choi, Seo Woo-sik, Bong Joon-ho, Ted Sarandos
Starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Ahn Seo-hyun, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo-shik, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 120 minutes