At its premiere at Cannes this year, Bong Joon Ho’s Okja caused a bit of a stir. It wasn’t the source of any controversy because of its content or quality, but simply because it was an original film produced by Netflix and being against the streaming service is en vogue for certain number of film lovers at the moment. That attitude should immediately be reexamined because Okja is just the latest masterwork by Bong Joon Ho, a sweeping film that will run you through a gamut of emotions. If Netflix is willing to fund bold original movies in the mold of Okja, they’re not doing anything wrong to the world of cinematic art. In fact, they’re making it better.
The film opens in 2007, with Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) making her first public presentation as head of the Mirando Corporation, which has had a troubling history and is constantly under public scrutiny. She announces a new contest involving massive “Super Piglets” that are non-GMO and entirely natural. 26 of these creatures will be sent to farmers around the world in a competition to see who can raise the best Super Piglet with a winner crowned in ten years. Overseeing this contest as the public face of the Mirando Corporation is Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Ten years later, Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) lives in her secluded corner of South Korea with her grandfather Heebong (Hee-Bong Byun), and the two have been raising their Super Piglet, Okja. The young Mija and Okja have a special bond, and Bong Joon Ho carefully establishes this close bond between the two. The massive CGI creation of Okja interacts perfectly with its human counterpart and they do make up the heart of the film. When people from the Mirando Corporation arrive to take Okja to New York, Mija runs away and searches for her beloved Super Piglet until she crosses paths with members of the Animal Liberation Front, a radical group headed by Jay (Paul Dano). They aim to use Okja to expose the dirty dealings of the Mirando Corporation and when that’s finished return the creature to Mija. Of course, things don’t exactly go as planned.
What makes Okja such an astounding cinematic achievement is way with which Bong Joon Ho is able to weave in and out various genres without making the tonal shifts feel jarring. The movie is at once a child adventure story in the mold E.T., a scathing satire of modern corporate culture, an action film, a horror film, a demented comedy. Bong Joon Ho never allows the film’s political inclinations to interfere with the heart of the story, all of which hinges on the bond between Okja and Mija. Every beat that the film aims for is handled perfectly, be it the demented comedy or the tear-jerking moments.
Following her standout performance in Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer, Tilda Swinton once again a captivating, eccentric performance as Lucy Mirando. The corporate matriarch is covered in virginal white from head to toe, that includes her hair. The real standout of the supporting cast of Okja comes in the wild performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. Johnny Wilcox. Gyllenhaal dominates the screen in each and every scene that appears, sometimes darkly menacing and other times just laugh out loud hilarious. The young Seo-Hyun Ahn really provides the film with its heart and soul, and the young actress is quite the discovery. As Okja finds itself going off in so many different directions with so many different actors delivering so many different takes, Ahn provides an anchor for the emotional content of the film.
Netflix has struggled to bring memorable movies to its platform with the same ease it has its television series, but Okja breaks that cycle and does so convincingly well. This is the moment where the tide should turn and cinephiles should begin embracing Netflix for taking chances in bringing daring movies by brilliant auteurs to a wide audience. Bong Joon Ho has brought his latest masterwork to the streaming service, and Okja is one of the most affecting films of the year. It’s a movie that has everything and delivers it so on the highest possible level. This is a rare movie that we should all be grateful that Netflix was willing to take a chance on.
A stunning cinematic feat by Bong Joon Ho, Okja runs the audience through a gamut of emotions with laughter, tears, and moments of genuine terror.