Okja is the first great Netflix film. It’s also gloriously original, bitingly hilarious, sweepingly sweet, and so startlingly powerful it will make even the most devout carnivore consider going veggie.
At the Cannes Film Festival back in May, Okja ignited a furious debate between Hollywood and Netflix. And while this isn’t the time or place to delve into the discussion, the real reason why Okja inflamed the conversation is because it is a truly astounding film.
It’s not just that, though. Okja will immediately make you realize why Netflix has the potential to become such a force in the film industry (and film distribution field). From its outset you’re immediately aware that Okja is a film that none of the Hollywood studios would go anywhere near anymore. Which is especially damning, because Okja is rife with ambition, beauty, and imagination, while at the same time it possesses a strong and coherent message that leaves a real imprint.
Okja opens on Tilda Swinton’s Lucy Mirando, the head of the Mirando Corporation, a huge company that decides to redo its image courtesy of a contest involving super-pigs. Mirando provides over two dozen super-pigs to farmers across the world, who then have 10 years to raise the creatures as their own. Then, after a decade, Mirando will hold a contest to decide which of these animals is the most superior.
With the help of Jake Gyllenhaal’s bizarre TV host-cum-zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox, it is decided that Okja is the winner. But before that point, we’ve already seen first hand the relationship between Mija (An Seo Hyun) and Okja, who has been given free reign to roam the South Korean mountains, and in the process has turned into an oversized bundle of warmth, innocence, determination, and personality.
But because Okja is still technically owned by Mirando, they take him from the quaint natural beauty of the Korean mountains at first down to Seoul and then onwards to New York City, where she will ultimately be crowned the best super-pig. But Mirando quickly have both Mija and the Animal Liberation Front, which consists of Paul Dano, Lily Collins, and Steven Yeun, to contend with, as they seek to keep Okja out of harm’s way.
Let me make it clear: Okja is the first great Netflix film. It’s also gloriously original, bitingly hilarious, sweepingly sweet, and so startlingly powerful it will make even the most devout carnivore consider going veggie. There’s a control and momentum to Okja that doesn’t just keep its message on point, and its themes well contained as well as probed, but you always feel as though the film is driving forward with its plot and intentions. Okja doesn’t scrimp on its characterization and emotion, as it either makes you care deeply for or understand the plights of those involved. Even its villains, who feel like a by-product of the capitalist greed that has long been fervent in America.
Okja is truly able to thrive because of the work of its visual effects team, who were instantly able to make the titular beast personable yet surreal, as well as captivating and nuanced. This creates a tight, heartfelt bond between the super-est of super pigs and Mija that you repeatedly stare at the screen and go, ‘Awwwww.’
At the same time, co-writer and director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) keeps upping the ante in surprising and original ways, while stretching and solidifying what’s a relatively simple story by exploring its themes of animal cruelty in a funny, powerful, and probing fashion. Bong Joon-ho also elegantly handles its melange of tones, too, swaying from intense action to office politics to gruesome horror-esque sequences, but always in a controlled and compelling manner. The only time that Okja even slightly feels as though it has gone stale is during a 10-minute period when it is actually setting itself up for its final 45 minutes.
Most importantly, though, Bong Joon-ho doesn’t pull any punches, which is both refreshing, if at times hard to watch, and lulls you closer and closer in to the film. This is especially true of Okja’s brutal finale, which isn’t diluted down and is instead presented in as dank and realistic fashion as possible. But is still thoroughly captivating. Even before that point, Okja has so utterly bizarre, yet always with an emotional backbone to keep you invested, that you can’t help but be beguiled. Especially since each and every member of the cast are clearly having the time of their lives on screen, too.
Ultimately it is the relationship between Okja and Mija that really makes you fall in love with the film, especially as you behold Mija’s relentless pursuit and intent to save her genetically modified brethren. By the end of Okja you’ll genuinely feel exhausted, and like you’ve experienced every step of their journey. But rather than being tired, it’s a journey that you’ll be willing to go through again and again and again and again.
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