by Benjamín Harguindey
Review of Okja (2017), directed by Joon-ho Bong. South Korea / USA.
When Okja first screened earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival and the Netflix logo showed up, the audience jeered. When the projection had to be restarted 10 minutes in due to an aspect ratio error, it got a second set of boos. What’s a TV movie doing at the Cannes Film Festival anyway?
It’s a sign of the times that a streaming and online distribution company with an in-house production studio can now dump original content on one of the oldest, most prestigious film festivals in the world. How much of the outrage is purely prejudice, though? By the time Okja was over it was reportedly met with a standing ovation. Back in 2015 Beasts of No Nation, another “Netflix Original”, made it all the way to the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Marcello Mastroianni Award.
But enough about the movie’s pedigree and what its existence means to cinema. The story, in which a little girl must rescue her animal buddy from the clutches of a cruel company, you’ve seen in plenty of other tearjerkers. You know the motions. The animal is snatched for profit, the girl slips through what little adult supervision stands in the way and embarks on an adventure fueled on determination and good luck.
The setting is the mountainous backwoods of South Korea. The girl is Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), who lives with her grandfather. The animal is the titular Okja, who looks like a cross between a boar, a hippo and a manatee. The company, an agrochemical multinational, is run by the chic Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) and though it may appear geo-friendly on the outside of course there’s enough sleaze going down under to bury Monsanto.
Okja is actually one of their world-famous “superpigs”, ostensibly discovered in Chile and bred in Arizona in an effort to cure world hunger. Following a 10 year trial run in the Korean farm, Mirando goons swoop down to snatch Okja as a “contest winner” and ship it back to New York for God knows. Mija follows their trail and, after attaining worldwide fame, becomes the pawn in the designs of the idealistic Animal Liberation Front (led by Paul Dano) as well as the publicity stunts of Mirando.
Of course the whole framework is absurd, and it requires an absurd tone to go with it, which Joon-ho Bong is more than happy to deliver. Events accelerate at such rate and escalate so quickly that they take the form of a tall tale, while characters acts with such madcap purpose and energy that they feel like cartoons – especially one Dr. Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal), a washout Steve Irwin type that spends the movie prancing around in shorts and screaming in a voice so high-pitched it’s on the verge of cracking. At times you wonder if animation wouldn’t have worked better for the movie.
But hey, for the most part, it works. The opening convivial scenes between Mija and Okja provide solid emotional grounds for the rest of the movie, which hinges on whether Mija will succeed in rescuing her. It’s wise that Joon-ho doesn’t make his actress play cute or mug for sympathy. That’s Okja’s job. Mija falls in line with heroines such as Chihiro from Spirited Away (2001) or the titular Coraline (2009). She’s of a one-track mind to get things over with, and is mostly pissed off for as long as they don’t.
As for Okja, a CGI concoction, she looks real enough to share the screen with her live-action counterparts, though not so much when it comes to physical interaction (the drop shadow under the actors’ hands is a dead giveaway). Weird that even for close-ups Joon-ho sticks to CGI rather than switch to a real-life stand in. I thought Spielberg had already figured this out back in 1993, but then again look at Jurassic World (2015).
Okja is a messy stampede of a movie, throwing in stuff with every other scene just to amuse you, even if it doesn’t end up paying off (I’m thinking of the Gyllenhaal character, and a certain twist involving Mirando). The tall tale angle means there’s very little tension where there should be, because the movie keeps handwaving the plot and characters tend to glide from one conflict to another with ease. Only near the ending does the bubble pop and we get a harsh sequence of events where Joon-ho goes all in on the sentimentality of the story. It’s a bit sappy, but since the movie has kept most of its punches above the belt you’re inclined to indulge in it.
As a madcap satire of public relations and publicity stunts Okja is amusing, even if it doesn’t say anything new on the subject. This isn’t really a “message movie” so much as a Jack of all Trades ride across fun territory (ranging from corporate farce to potty humor) with the occasional dark detour. It’s probably the best ‘Netflix Original’ to date, which may not be saying much, but a promise of similar, better things to come nonetheless.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).