‘Okja’ – Netflix’s First Hit Film Is Epic Yet Grounded In Truth | Film Review
After releasing a slew of independent productions and Adam Sandler comedies whilst struggling to find much respect for their Original Film output, Netflix turned to a true auteur in Bong Joon-ho, who audaciously delivers their first must-see film and the first real sign that Netflix’s film department can feel as grand and huge as Hollywood with Okja.
It seems strange that the streaming giant took this long to finally turn to a reliable, usually excellent director to sure up their film output. After all, their original TV series model was kicked off by securing one of the greatest contemporary auteurs, David Fincher, to help create House Of Cards, and he was followed by the Wachowski sisters and Baz Luhrmann.
Yet, while Netflix’s TV flourished, their films wallowed in critical reactions that amounted to no more than insouciant shrugs, amid poor marketing and simply forgettable content. Fortunately, Okja has arrived right on time and Netflix will hope it signals the beginning of their climb up the movie ladder.
What’s so distinct about the film is its ability to balance tone and genres while still keeping its themes in line. The first hour could easily be the first act of a big budget blockbuster if you replaced the surprisingly cute titular super-pig with a dinosaur or a Godzilla knockoff.
Bong, quite masterfully, is able to deliver exposition cleanly through an accessible opening scene set in the past, establish the genuinely warming rapport between Okja the super-pig and Mija, the child who has been taking care of her for the past decade, the distinct threat to Okja’s existence and the part-hapless, part-noble attempts by ALF – the Animal Liberation Front – to free Okja and stop the harmful GMOs being hidden by the Mirando corporation as healthy, organic, environmentally friendly pets being released to the public.
If that sounds like a lot of information to get across and release onto the viewer within the first act or so, it is, but Bong’s sturdy hand guides us through it with ease, and once ALF reveals their full plan, we are fully on board.
Okja’s anti-capitalist, anti-corporation themes are clear, and Bong’s films in the past – namely, The Host and Snowpiercer – have never been particularly subtle, and the case remains the same here.
Yet despite the film having a clear message revolving around animal testing, globalisation and business-trumps-all tactics, it’s the smaller ideas that Bong is a little more subtle about that make Okja such a rewarding experience.
He addresses philanthropic groups attempt to change the world on such a large scale as both noble, yet ultimately, misguided and prone to being ideologically worthy but naïve through ALF’s worthy yet often comically-toned attempts to save Okja.
The Mirando corporation is depicted as blindingly desensitised to their blatant lies, deeming their consumers simply not smart enough to accept the truth – “It’s not our fault that the consumers are so paranoid about GM foods” -, and in a perfect ‘capitalism always prevails’ moment, the most upbeat moment in the film comes about thanks to the buying and selling of goods.
Happiness is literally bought, and we’re left with a smile on our face, but a hollow one.
While Bong guides the film through its many twists and turns expertly, the final product may not have succeeded without its abundance of garish-yet-lovable acting by most of its cast.
While the crux of the film is held together by Ahn Seo-Hyun‘s Mija, a particularly impressive performance considering she speaks only a few lines of English in a multi-lingual, but ultimately mostly English film, the pure entertainment comes from the supporting cast.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Dr. Johnny is an absurd piece of scenery-chewing, over-acting that never feels too ridiculous amid Bong’s own love of absurdity (this is a film about a super-pig, after all).
Gyllenhaal flails around, his cadence rising and falling at the drop of a hat and most of the fun coming from the humorous differences between his off-air and on-air TV persona. He wouldn’t feel out of place in a schlocky B-movie, and the fact his performance and role still carries weight is a testament to both the actor and the director.
Alongside Gyllenhaal, the ever-reliable Tilda Swinton again excels in duel roles, playing the eccentrically evil Lucy Mirando, as well as her even more no-nonsense, devilishly evil sister Nancy, while Paul Dano brings his familiar conflation of grounded seriousness and odd humour to his role as ALF leader that fits him perfectly.
Alongside the assuredness of Giancarlo Esposito, the awkward demeanour of Lily Collins, and the likeable presence of Steven Yeun, the film boasts Netflix’s best cast yet.
Bong has always been a director destined to divide critics. His work has been acclaimed in some circles and called melodramatic and thematically clumsy in others, which makes him an apt director to finally deliver Netflix’s first film they can genuinely yell from the hills about.
For all of Netflix’s TV success, they’ve also been accused of cancelling popular shows too harshly, targeting lowbrow demographics and have just recently come under fire for having two films, including this one, included in the Cannes Film Festival despite neither one set to have (much of a) theatrical run.
Yet, despite these accusations of hurting the wonderful world of cinema, it seems unlikely that, had Okja been picked up by a traditional distributor, it would have had much of a wide run in cinemas. After all, this is a multi-language film about corporate greed and starring a super-pig that looks more like a cross between a hippo and an elephant.
So having this film forever available on Netflix’s service, constantly having new sets of eyes exposed to it, is surely a good thing for daring, interesting cinema.
While Netflix’s large budget and abundance of shows have allowed them to cater to particular demographics, it’s a pleasant surprise that their first hit film is a true multinational, bilingual experience that blends plenty of genres together into a thought-provoking yet fun film. More of this kind of content, and the accusations of ruining cinema will quickly dissipate into the distance.