One of the most controversial movies of this year’s Cannes Film Festival due to it being distributed by Netflix, Okja is a South Korean satirical drama directed by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host), starring Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, and Paul Dano. It is available for streaming on Netflix, and it also had a limited theatrical run in some countries.
The story is about Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), a young girl who lives with her grandpa on a mountain near Seoul. Their family has received Okja, one of many super pigs developed by the Mirando Corporation that have been sent all over the world to grow up as part of a competition. Okja wins the competition for being the best super pig on the planet, and is sent to New York. However, Mija is not ready to leave her animal friend, so she embarks on an adventure to save Okja and bring her back home.
The film is a satire through and through: from its opening scene, the light-hearted tone is set up, and the events that follow are so absurd and unbelievable that you cannot but compare them to our day-to-day life and corporate greed focused more on becoming rich than acting for the good of the people. Your enjoyment of the film will vary based on how much you enjoy watching live-action cartoonish characters that truly are out of this world. Tilda Swinton plays the head of Mirando, and she is a self-righteous and weak person who is nothing more than a puppet for Giancarlo Esposito’s smarter and more calculated Frank Dawson. Mija is a stubborn girl who will do anything to save her friend, and barely anything that happens scathes her, for her ideals are strong and her goals set. Paul Dano is the leader of ALF (Animal Liberation Front), a terrorist group that does not believe in violence and that is sworn to protect animals of all kinds: his and the other member’s performances (Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Devon Bostick, Daniel Henshall) are rather standard, and the least noteworthy part of the film. Last, but definitely not least, is the now infamous Dr. Johnny Wilcox, played by Jake Gyllenhaal: he is a TV presenter of a globe-trotting show about animals, and his eccentric look, high-pitched voice, exaggerated mannerisms, and drunken movements deliver some of the funniest and weirdest moments of the picture that are going to alienate many viewers.
The key word for this movie is quirky: it juggles different tones and characters, uses popular songs like John Denver’s Annie’s Song during more serious moments to create a clash of emotions, and has over-the-top performances that are straight out of a cartoon. To me, it all worked beautifully: when creating satire, you need to be over-the-top, otherwise you will not be taken seriously or will just seem pandering. There is so much care and earnestness put into this movie that you can’t but crack a smile every 5 seconds, and when dark moments happen they pack quite a big punch. There is no blood or gore in this film, and it feels like the closest to a family picture of the 80s, where grim moments are gonna help young kids group up alongside the main character and face some of the realities of the world.
Technically, the film is impeccable. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, Amour, Midnight in Paris) crafts gorgeous shots that could be paintings, and the vibrant editing keeps the film constantly moving without getting tiring. The visual effects team did wonderfully with creating Okja: even though it looks fake, her movements and expressive eyes are so effective that you are bound to care about this animal, without resorting to cheap tactics and forced “cute” moments. The soundtrack is always important in Korean films, and here it is unsurprisingly great: the original score by Jaeil Jung is fun and vibrant, and the use of more famous songs helps ground the movie in our reality while also maintaining a cinematic level to the whole experience.
Overall, Okja is yet another solid South Korean movie, and a great addition to Bong’s stellar filmography. With a compelling story (albeit a tad disappointing in its ending), excellent direction, gorgeous cinematography, and great acting in more ways than one, this is easily the best movie distributed by Netflix. A must-watch for those who like weirdly fun movies.
Visual Effects: 8
Violence & Gore: 6.5
Sex & Nudity: 3
Drugs & Profanity: 6
Intensity & Horror: 6