Review: Whoever thought that Netflix and its streaming-giant comrades are not part of ‘future of the cinema’ should watch Bong Joon-ho’s (Memories of Murders, Snowpiercer) latest work, Okja—a feat endorsed by Netflix which sparked controversy in the 70th Cannes Film Festival. Joon-ho’s second international feature evidently demonstrates what would happen if an auteur is funded to make a blockbuster with full creative controls.
Working with oddball-specialist Jon Ronson (gonzo journalist who wrote the embryo of Frank and The Men Who Stare at Goat), Joon-ho crafts a prolific blockbuster to wage war against animal cruelty and capitalism of food industry in the weirdest way. Delivered in the auteur’s most original framework—with shades of deadpan humor and bitter satire—in collaboration with Hollywood’s most versatile figures, Okja nests it all in a modest story about a superpig of the titular name.
It all starts with a breakthrough in food industry titan, Mirando Corporation, when their new chief, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) takes over the business from his father. Lucy introduces a new breed of superpig to overcome world’s hunger problem. The corporation then throws a competition to farmers all around the world to raise those superpigs in their own ways before announcing the most beautiful one in the course of ten years.
Flash forwarded into ten years, we are brought to a hillside village in South Korea where a superpig named Okja is a companion to a country orphan girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). Through a brief tenure in the nature, a delicate relationship between the girl and the hippopotamus-sized pig is emanated—reflecting Okja’s sweet-hearted nature and progression in thinking as well as Mija’s strong-minded nature. Yet, happiness for them is short-lived as Mirando wants their pig back to New York for the sake of their competition.
Okja presents the story through presentations of characters to characters, which cramp its whimsical world with awe. Swinton’s Lucy is an exhilarating villain with the actress’ penchant to quirky make-ups and kooky manners. She’s dealing with some sort of daddy issue (and another spoiler sensitive issue, too), which drives the story forward. Jake Gyllenhaal appears as Mirando’s goofy spokeperson, Dr. Johnny Wilcox, to become the ‘Animal Planet-esque’ host in Okja’s universe but with deliverance as if he’s Borat. Paul Dano comes as Jay who works with Steve Yeun’s (The Walking Dead) K as frontrunners in a non-violent Animal Liberation Front.
Same as Snowpiercer who works with a satire to social class in a fantasy mantle, Okja works even more apparently as a criticism to food industry’s capitalism fueled with animal cruelty for the sake of demand. The criticism is more spot-on than expected, especially after Joon-ho presents a strong bond between Mija and the CGI creature. But, same as Snowpiercer, this film juxtaposes the criticism with engaging visuals and elevating action sequences, too.
While opened with vibrant and lovely tone, Okja shifts into darker and more melancholic tone approaching the end. Its allegorical lesson lingers until the end; and, when there’s a rise of vegan movement in the near future, some of them might be influenced by Netflix’ worldwide spread message about this.