Having been a fan of Bong Joon-ho since seeing his multi-genre creature feature The Host all the way back in 2006 I’ve enjoyed all of his work since so when I heard he was working with Jon Ronson on a screenplay for his new film I was sold on it immediately. While the film has been rightly celebrated, the issue of streaming has overshadowed a lot of the conversation. The film has been bought by Netflix and was released yesterday. At the Edinburgh International Film Festival perhaps the strangest moment of the film was when the film started and the Netflix theme and logo plays. Many in the audience let out a minor chuckle – when you watch it at home this will be less surprising of course – but it was weird to see something so familiar from your home viewing on the big screen. In Cannes the logo was booed as Netflix has been judged to be an enemy of cinema – which I think is pretty ironic considering watching a film with a Cannes audience has to be worse than watching it as a pixelated avi on a mobile phone while riding on a bus.
The film opens like a viral marketeers dream. A beaming Tilda Swinton promoting the Mirando Corporation’s latest breed of super pigs and kicking off a ten year competition where twenty-five of these pigs will be given to farmers all over the world and whoever grows the best super pig will be crowned the winner. We cut to ten years later where we meet a young girl called Mija (An Seo Hyun) who has been caretaker to Okja the super pig and they have become best friends. We follow them around their day to day life in the mountains which plays out like a live action Studio Ghibli movie – echoes of My Neighbour Totoro very much at the forefront. Soon though this tranquility is disrupted by the arrival of the Mirando Corporation coming to claim the winning pig. From there the we follow Mija’s one track minded, Terminator-esque quest where she rolls down mountains, crashes through windows and hangs onto trucks, to rescue Okja from their evil clutches.
The cast of Okja is another huge strong point: Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito, Steven Yeun and Tilda Swinton playing two roles; both evil. This ensemble cast gels cohesively and each get to bring their own flavour to the film. Alongside Miji, Paul Dano’s Animal Liberation Front leader Jay is another favourite playing it effortlessly cool yet managing to draw laughs from playing it straight in tense situations. Then there is Jake Gyllenhaal who comes off like a cross between Steve Irwin and Captain Jack Sparrow. He throws himself around so wildly that if a lesser actor, who’d not delivered some of the finest performances in recent memory, had done this you’d wonder if they’d ever act again after such a lunatic turn. That said, it is glorious to behold and his appearance on screen is a joy throughout.
In many ways Okja is the perfect Bong Joon-ho film. A blend of action, thriller, drama and a heavy sprinkling of the wacky, with it all held together with a political message. In many ways it’s the best children film that you can’t actually show to children – Tilda’s F-bomb in the opening monologue, for example, sets the tone that Okja isn’t going to play by mainstream expectation.
In that way, the ending felt absolutely perfect, a neat mix that manages to be both satisfying and a little frustrating. Okja knows it has raised some issues with us – specifically factory farming – that can’t be resolved easily and it would feel false for it to suggest that the characters could ever stop this entirely themselves. Indeed, Okja allows some of its meaner characters to face no consequences at all for their actions in the same way that Mr Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life famously receives no great comeuppance either. Let’s face it, it would be disingenuous to suggest that capitalism ever loses in today’s world and I applaud the film for highlighting this.
Okja was released at 4pm on 28th June 2017 on Netflix so simply, grab yourself a hotdog, boot up Netflix, enjoy one of the finest films of the year and then throw away your hotdog.