It's fair to say that Netflix and other on-demand streaming services have changed the way we watch movies and TV forever. Instead of having to go to a theatre or planning your day around a channel and time slot we can choose when and where we watch whatever we want and we have a vast digital library in the palm of our hand. Most have accepted this new means of digital distribution with open arms, with some of the best and brightest independent filmmakers creating interesting and original movies specifically for Netflix, like Macon Blair's I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore and the subject of this review, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja.
Okja is about Okja and Mija, a pair of childhood friends who must stand up against numerous injustices and large multinational corporations. I should mention that Mija is a 13-year-old farm girl and Okja is a super pig. As a whole, the film feels, for all intensive purposes, like a children's adventure movie from the 1980s. You have a small kid going up against a shadowy organisation to save a strange creature, it's like E.T., Explorers, or Flight of the Navigator. However, with that basic outline of a plot, director and writer Bong Joon-ho is able to mix in his own unique style of comedy and drama to make a film that is wholly unlike any that have gone before.
This globe-trotting adventure never feels rushed or contrived, every element is well thought out and executed with cinematography and editing that means you can keep up with intense bursts of action scattered between slower and quieter moments of reflection and drama. Michael Bay take note. The film is entertaining from start to finish, expertly combining a cavalcade of different genres from 80s action adventure, creature-feature, family drama and comedy.
The main source of comedy comes from the absolutely wonderful characters. Tilda Swinton pulls double duty as Lucy and Nancy Mirando the CEO/Ex-CEO of a multinational argo-chemical company, with two wildly different styles of managing a business. Lucy tries to be nice and inviting while Nancy is entirely cold and business focussed. Jake Gyllenhaal provides obvious comic relief as Dr Johnny Wilcox, a washed up kids’ TV presenter who is so deliciously hammy it is impossible not to have a good time whenever he is on screen. The animal-rights activists are similarly comic, with great scenes where these very polite, non-violent people apologise for stealing Okja from the company. Standouts from this group are Steven Yeun as K, an earnest individual for whom things never go his way and Jay played by Paul Dano, who is incredibly devoted to his beliefs, so much so that it puts him and his group in danger to great comedic effect.
However it would be wrong to say this film is pure comedy. It most certainly isn't and the characters are not purely comedic, though from their slightly goofy antics we as an audience become more attached to them and their plight and thus the heartbreaking drama that is at the core of Okja is intensified. Because we have found the animal-rights activists funny we want them to succeed all the more. Though when it comes to heartbreaking drama, two characters have the others beat. Ahn Seo-hyun is a breathtaking talent as Mija, a wonderful human who carries the film on her young shoulders and is someone whose career I will be supporting. The other character isn't even a person but Okja, a cross between a hippo and a manatee that will melt your heart and question your dietary habits.
It is very obvious that this film has a message; whether people will see it as an anti-meat film or an anti-capitalist film is purely up to individual interpretation. I can see both sides to the argument, but seeing as the film makes fun of hardcore animal rights activists as much as big corporate bigwigs makes the idea that this is a pro-vegan film a little hard to justify. Much like his previous film, Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho focuses his criticism on capitalist society. The way that Lucy Mirando has difficulty synthesising two sides of the Mirando Corporation, the friendly public face and the shady private side, is a testament to this. While the themes are similarly simplistic, they never distract from the plot or the characters, and in fact add to the charm of this film.
It doesn't matter how you see Okja in its limited cinematic release or on Netflix; it is only important that you do see it. It is a perfect, modern take on an 80s masterpiece, with fantastic characters, a simple, understandable story, a style of humour that is all its own, and the power to make you think about the society you live in and your position within it.