‘Okja’ has been one of my most highly anticipated films of the year. South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’ is one of my favourite films. ‘Okja’ also features ‘Snowpiercer’s’ Tilda Swinton, along with Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano and ‘Breaking Bad’s’ Giancarlo Esposito – it really feels like dream casting, almost tailor-made to appeal to me.
Of course this film is unusual for several reasons – the main one being that it has been released on Netflix with little opportunity to see it on the big screen. There are some cinema showings of it (mainly in big cities), but significantly, these have been after the film debuted on Netflix. This fact caused much controversy at Cannes Film Festival – with people debating whether it should be shown at a film festival or if it should be eligible for competition. It feels ridiculous to me that ‘OJ – Made in America’ can be considered eligible for film awards and ‘Okja’ could not be. It is absolutely time that Netflix and Amazon are recognised as the significant film production and distribution companies they now are. Certainly when they allow directors to take risks, have final cut and follow their unique vision, as they have done with Bong here.
I have mentioned some of ‘Okja’s’ more ‘big-name’ actors above, but they are actually not the stars of the film. At the centre of the story is a 12 year old girl; Mija (An Seo Hyun) and of course – the CGI creation that is Okja. Okja is absolutely a central character in the film – she has an almost mystical connection to Mija and her eyes have been imbued with humanity, an impressive achievement by the effects team. Swinton plays Lucy Mirando – head of a large global corporation that has genetically engineered a ‘super-pig’ – enormous hippo-like creatures. She acts as if they are environmentally-friendly (leaving a minimal footprint etc) and further pervades these ‘eco’ credentials by sending 26 out to the best farmers all over the world to be raised over a period of ten years. This is turned into a competition to see who can raise the most super of the super-pigs. Mija’s grandfather is one of the farmers raising a super-pig and Okja has very much become part of their family, isolated in the mountains of South Korea. These early scenes, set in the picturesque countryside, deserve to be seen on a big screen.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays ‘Doctor Johnny’ – a Steve Irwin dialled up to 11 – as the public face of the Mirando Corporation, ostensibly sent out to check on the health and welfare of the super-pigs. It is the most outlandish performance by an almost unrecognisable Gyllenhaal, but he does well to hint at the character’s insecurities underneath all of the bombast. The MVP for me (as is often the case), is Paul Dano, as Jay, the head of ‘ALF’ – an animal rights activist group who stage a convoluted ‘rescue’ mission. The group is a band of misfits, including one who whose extreme veganism has left him weak with hunger and a Korean translator who wields more power than he should. There is an impressive lorry chase and a sequence with Okja rampaging through a subterranean mall in Seoul – the production values of the action and CGI are as high as anything you would expect if the film were getting a wide cinema release.
Once the action transfers to New York, Swinton gets to really stretch her acting muscles, playing both Lucy and her sister Nancy. The production design is every bit as lush and outrageous as you would expect, after ‘Snowpiercer’. Lucy puts Mija in a matching ‘Mirando-designed’ kimono for the big press event – another scene where Swinton’s character’s hubris is punctured and she comes crashing down to earth. Swinton plays this beautifully – she is truly one of the finest actors working today.
Towards the end of the film, the message does become slightly preachy – by showing the concentration-camp-like conditions of the meat factory. Yes, there are huge problems with the commercial meat production industry and this highlights them in an unusual way. But, I’m sorry to say, ‘Okja’ is not enough to put me off my bacon.
Although I really liked ‘Okja’, it didn’t quite meet up to my (extremely high) expectations. It did get a little too sentimental and manipulative for my tastes. Visually, it was a huge treat and the central performance by Seo Hyun was exceptional. The wider ensemble cast were also all fantastic, providing humour as well as showing the vulnerable side of seemingly powerful characters. I’m a proponent of this type of bold, risk-taking singularly visionary film-making, whatever platform it chooses and I hope we get to see much more like it. However, I was a little disappointed by ‘Okja’ – I need to keep my anticipation in check next time!
Fiona’s rating: 8.5 out of 10
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo-Hyun, Jake Gyllenhaal