Netflix’s latest addition to it’s growing arsenal of original content, Okja is exemplary evidence of how the online streaming company is quietly rocking the film industry.
The film follows the trials and tribulations of our young Korean heroine Mija (played brilliantly by Joon-ho Bong) and her best friend, and “world’s best superpig”, Okja. The “superpig” is a genetically modified species designed by the fictional Mirdano corporation to be, according to an elaborate PR campaign and manically industrious Lucy Mirando (played equally as brilliantly by Tilda Swinton), super eco-friendly and most importantly “taste fucking good”. Given the piglet to raise, Mija grew up alongside her animal sibling, until the day comes that the Mirando corporation shatter their idyllic friendship when they step in to claim back their superpig. It goes without saying that Okja, to say the least, is a movie with a message.
At the helm of this environmental adventure flick is the talented Joon-ho Bong, best recognised for his works Snowpiercer (2013) and earlier Korean films such as The Host (2006). If you’re familiar with any of his films you’ll not be surprised that with Okja Bong is once again holding a grim mirror up to society – this time taking careful aim at multinational food corporations responsible for churning out terrifying quantities of cheap processed meat.
At it’s heart Okja follows the story of a young girl and her pig, and Bong brilliant crafts the relationship with all the subtlety and skill he is known for. The gorgeous opening scenes, shot amongst mountainous rural South Korea, introduce us to the leading lady whom the film is named for, Okja. At first I regarded the giant, slightly terrifying, computer generated superpig with some skepticism. Okja, after all, was the groundwork upon which the entire film sat. A premise such as this one relies almost exclusively on the audience feeling empathy for a fictional animal, of an entirely made-up species. No small task. Sadly my first impressions of Okja was that she looked exactly as she was – fake. The CGI is unconvincing in places; not to mention that Okja looks less like a superpig and more like a nightmarish hybrid between hippopotamus and a dog.
Thankfully, however, Bong’s masterful storytelling and direction will quickly make your heart melt for Okja, and even forget the less-than-impressive CGI effects. This, of course, is also thanks to the little star of the show – Mija. The young actress performs fantastically, and sweeps the audience away with her on an improbable journey from her nondescript little farmhouse all the way cross the globe to the startling finale in New York.
The entire cast ensemble is, in fact, impressive. The two big-name actors, Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal bring not only star-power but enchanting (if not slightly insane) performances. Perhaps Gyllenhaal brings the most impressive performance of the pair, if for no other reason than for how left-field it is. Love it or hate it, Gyllenhaal’s Johnny Wilcox, a has-been zoologist representing the Mirando brand and desperately clinging to old fame, is thrilling to watch. On the other-hand, Tilda Swinton brings her usual calibre of faultless performance, though one cannot escape the type-casting here.
“Okja almost feels like Studio Ghibli created a live action environmentalist flick with it’s darkly whimsical style”
The storyline itself, with it’s ragtag band of Animal Liberation Front (ALF) activists and the uncovering of untold horrors within mass-production pig farms, bears an uncanny resemblance to the all-too-real documentary Lucent (2014). Towards the end of the film the audience is offered a stark insight into the Mirando pig farming plants, and the cruelty that occurs behind the corporation’s shiny eco-friendly veneer, away from the public eye. The imagery used here by Bong is, in some places, almost a shot-by-shot reimagining of the infamous documentary. From the shots of superpig’s being forced to sleep, defecate and eat in the same tight confines, caked in mud to their eventual screams as they journey up a ramp (whilst being coerced by electrified cattle-prods) to where they will eventually have their throats unceremoniously slit by butchers, the imagery so much mirrors footage in Lucent it would be surprising if Bong hadn’t used the documentary for inspiration.
Okja almost feels like Studio Ghibli created a live action environmentalist flick with it’s darkly whimsical style. It truly captures the extremes of humanity in both the beauty of human and animal harmony as well as the ugliness of corporate brutality, greed and consumerism.
Overall rating: 9.1/10