Back in 1997, Netflix was merely a DVD distribution company that allowed people from across the United States to watch any movie they want in their homes without having to drive to Blockbuster Video. Twenty years later, Netflix has become a media powerhouse. Revolutionizing modern American television as early as 2010, it was inevitable that they would step into the filmmaking market shortly after. While the first couple years saw the release of a few questionable Adam Sandler projects, the company has since released a much stronger output with outstanding quality, such as Beasts of No Nation and The Fundamentals of Caring. But in 2017, for the first time, a Netflix original film had the honor of being featured at the Cannes Film Festival in the form of Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja. Was it worthy of this amazing accolade? Absolutely.
In an alternate 2007 where food shortages are becoming more common, a new type of food manufacturing is being developed, overseen by an imposing yet nerdy woman by the name of Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton). Her late father’s Mirando Corporation,which she now helms, has created a “super-pig” that can produce lots of tasty meat in less time than normal pigs do. It is with this in mind that she devises up a beauty pageant wherein farmers around the world raise a super-pig over the course of ten years, and, in the future, the best pigs are to be shown in New York City. When Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), a small girl who is helping her grandfather raise one of the pigs in the mountains, discovers the sinister nature of the plans for her super pig, named Okja, she runs to New York in an attempt to save her best friend before it’s too late.
Like any good drama, this film is driven by its characters and each are brilliantly developed. The strongest of the amazing ensemble cast is Ahn’s Mija. She may seem innocent when you look at her, but it’s in her unspoken strength of character that captures the attention of the audience. While she has minimal dialogue, so much of her character is discovered through actions and facial expressions that speak volumes to who she is. The entire ensemble cast is incredible, with no bad performance to speak of. Swinton works wonders as the leader of the company, with her conflict coming from trying to keep an optimistic viewpoint no matter how dire the circumstances seem. She perfectly encapsulates the conflicted nature of playing god with the creation of the super pig, struggling with whether or not it’s worth a greater sacrifice to save humanity. Other great characters include Jake Gyllenhaal as an alcoholic TV show host, Paul Dano as the leader of a powerful animal rights group, and a CGI pig that will melt the coldest of hearts.
While all of the characters feel very real and personable, it’s the character of Okja that the audience develops an emotional attachment to almost as deep as Mija’s. While Okja can seem fake in comparison to the real life location shooting, I don’t see that as a major flaw. The pig itself is a genetic hybrid in universe, though we are unsure of its exact genetic material. It’s fantastical nature among the reality of the setting serves as a contrast that works towards why Okja feels so foreign. But, it’s in the details that make the pig feel real. The texture of its skin, facial expressions, and huge, joyful eyes make him feel real; almost like a pet you want but can never have. These subtle touches of realism make the film compelling, as the audience connects with all of the “super pigs.”
The visuals in Okja are splendid. While the pig may seem a bit fake onscreen, the rest of what is seen is presented in startling clarity. Whether it be the natural settings of the mountains and rivers where Okja is raised, or the bustling confines of Seoul and New York, none of the locations feel super staged. This is interesting in itself because, usually in science fiction films, the locations feel more constructed. In this, however, they seem quite real and are presented as such. In one of Joon-ho’s earlier films, 2013’s Snowpiercer, the locations featured do not feel as genuine as they do in Okja.
Bong Joon-ho is a great director. It’s super refreshing to see a Korean director be featured on American screens, as the Western film industry is usually regarded as being driven mostly by white men. This means that foreign cinemas are slowly gaining traction in America through streaming platforms such as Netflix. In terms of Okja’s direction, it is exceptionally character-driven. Joon-ho gives his characters a lot of leeway in how they are able to interact with one another and it comes across as very natural. In a lot of science fiction, relationships feel rather forced between characters (this is usually brought on by their dialogue) but this film is very raw and emotional. On top of this, Joon-ho incorporates a lot of rather encompassing shots that show off his characters and their predicaments.
Okja is also a good film due to how many themes it projects. For one, there is the theme involving the moral dilemma of eating meat. There are a lot of images of animal cruelty that will definitely put some viewers off, but these images provide a good message. One must understand the processes behind making food, hard as they may be. Along with this, the film asks the question of what would you sacrifice in order to save someone. Mija certainly has learned a lot by the time the film comes to a close.
Bong Joon-Ho is one of the finest directors working today, and he continues this streak in his latest venture. Okja is an incredible film,with its excellent character work, story, settings and visuals. Don’t let the fact it premiered on Netflix make you look at it differently.