Back in late 2015, Bong Joon-ho announced that his next feature film would feature a South Korean female lead, with a supporting cast of English-speaking actors. This had me excited. It was then announced this feature had been picked up by Netflix, with a budget of $50 million. This had me equally excited.
Let’s get that controversial “Netflix issue” out of the way first. There was huge uproar at Cannes this year when the Netflix logo appeared on the big screen prior to Okja’s world premiere. More than likely from film critics, who hate the idea of people sitting in their own living room and experiencing a movie on a TV screen. Well, let me put it to you this way. For me it works, it works on a level that I am a parent of two young children, I cannot get to every movie I wish to see on the big screen. Be it childcare or financial reasons. Netflix gives me the opportunity to pay a small monthly fee and experience movies in the privacy of my own home. Plus in Okja’s case, Bong Joon-ho has stated he’d have never got the funding from any studio for a movie like this.
Guess what happened at the end of that premiere, it received a four-minute standing ovation.
For 10 idyllic years, young Mija has been caretaker and constant companion to Okja – a massive animal and an even bigger friend – at her home in the mountains of South Korea. But that changes when family-owned, multinational conglomerate Mirando Corporation takes Okja for themselves and transports her to New York, where an image-obsessed and self-promoting CEO has big plans for Mija’s dearest friend. With no particular plan but single-minded in intent, Mija sets out on a rescue mission.
I’ll come out straight away and say it, Okja is a brilliant film. From the first half-hour of a nearly unspoken word to the intensity of the final half-hour. The early interactions between super pig Okja and Mija, played by newcomer Ahn are incredibly heart-warming and set a perfect tone for the human/pet relationship. One that will sit with you for the rest of the film. This chemistry, mixed with the intelligence that Okja shows in the film will definitely see tears rolling down your cheeks.
When the realisation of what’s coming for Okja transpires, we are introduced to Dr Johnny Wilcox, portrayed brilliantly by Jake Gyllenhaal. Think a wacky Steve Irwin with a rather high pitched whiny voice. Gyllenhaal really makes this character his own, at first coming across as someone really annoying but incredibly funny, to then become almost maniacal in his motives.
Once we are taken from the beautiful surroundings of the Korean mountains into the sprawling metropolis that is Seoul, the emotions really start to hit home. A stunning chase scene through a shopping mall ends with the introduction of Paul Dano and Steven Yuen’s characters. Members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which without saying too much, sort of gives you the premise of the film. Emotions once again start to run high and we are then whisked off to New York.
Enter business CEO Lucy Mirando, played by Tilda Swinton and her underlings. Swinton’s presence in Okja grows and grows throughout the film. With a disturbing family background which we’re occasionally reminded of by some incredibly quirky dialogue, Swinton commands every scene she is in. Something she also did when appearing in Snowpiercer, also directed by Bong Joon-ho.
The final act of Okja is a huge emotional rollercoaster, and one I don’t really want to go into much detail about. I’d rather you sat down and experienced it for yourself. Like I said above, for some, it will induce tears but don’t let this put you off.
Okja was a bold move by Bong Joon-ho, what with corporate greed, mixed with animal activism and scientific ethics. But I agree with his comments that no studio would have given him a budget for such a different but compelling film. A film that even made the director himself turn vegan on its completion.
One final praise must go to Ahn Seo-Hyun. To say she is a newcomer to film is a surprise, especially when acting for the majority of time with a CGI pig. She is a wonder to behold on screen and if you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli, get ready to see a relationship reminiscent of My Neighbour Totoro.
I guarantee Okja will be on top 10 film lists of 2017. It’s definitely on mine and we’re only in June.
Okja is now available on Netflix and also select cinemas.