Friend or food: Netflix’s new sensory thriller ‘Okja’

"Okja" | Netflix Grade: C+
Netflix/Courtesy
"Okja" | Netflix
Grade: C+

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As one of two films shown at the Cannes Film Festival not set for a widespread big screen distribution, “Okja,” the break out film from South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, stirred up some controversy. A strange cinematic recipe with one-part allegorical fable, one-part big-budget action flick and one-part lovable animal drama, “Okja” looks to be the beginning of a new age of movies — in most of the world, it is being released to Netflix only, though there will be a limited theatrical release.

This strange sci-fi drama follows 14-year-old Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), an orphan who grows up in the rural mountains outside Seoul, South Korea, with her grandfather and Okja, a 5,000-pound genetically modified cuddly “super-piglet.” This pristine paradise is destroyed when Okja is carted away by her creator, millionaire CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), whose “world’s best super-pig” competition aims to revamp her company’s soiled image with an eco-friendly, animal loving, ethical capitalism press stunt.

After the loss of her beloved pet, Mija leaves for Seoul, vowing to stop at nothing to get Okja back. After a dangerous and dramatic chase sequence, she meets members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), led by Jay (Paul Dano) and Red (Lily Collins). They vow to help save Okja, yet their peaceful words are invalidated by strange acts of unnecessary violence. Ho paints the ALF as whiny millennial types, so enthralled with their single-minded cause that they fail to see the lunacy — and hypocrisy — of their “missions.”

The screenplay, written by Bong Joon Ho and British screenwriter Jon Ronson, features dialogue that often feels clunky and lost in translation. Mija speaks only in Korean (with English subtitles), but most characters still conduct full conversations with her, seemingly forgetting the language barrier.

However, the writing and portrayal of Korean characters like Mija and her grandfather is wholesome and gentle, while the rest of the almost entirely white American cast become farcical caricatures. Brilliantly, Ho forces American and European audiences to watch themselves — not as the heroes, but instead, often, as the butt of a joke.

Though Mija’s relationship with Okja seems to be inspired by the likes of “How to Train Your Dragon” and “The Jungle Book,” Okja herself is more realistic and less sanitized than her cuddly counterparts. Okja’s farts, poops, slobbers and snorts, combined with tender snuggling scenes and daring rescue attempts, only add to the cross-species friendship. Created through a combination of puppetry, hydraulics and CGI, Okja is the brainchild of Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor Erik De Boer, whose beautiful work leaves those in the audience all wanting a “super-piglet” of their own.

Though thoughtful and innocent at times, the film juggles too much, attempting to critique both capitalism and its opponents but with little resolution on either side. Okja herself functions as a symbol of late-stage capitalism in a battle of self-indulgent publicity mongering. Muddled criticisms of animal exploitation, consumer imaging and corporate greed leave the film overstuffed, though these many criticisms cleverly expose the hypocrisy of both sides by leaving the consumption of animals seeming perfectly fine.

Ahn is brilliant, subtly but powerfully displaying the depths of human connection in a simple and elegant portrayal. Swinton is only average; her glossy-diva neurotic super-boss comes off as a caricature, which though terrifyingly real at times, devolves into unbelievability quickly. The biggest flop is Jake Gyllenhaal, who as the farcical TV-zoologist-turned-corporate-shtick Dr. Johnny Wilcox, falls into boozy slapstick and screwball comedy — not his forte.

“Okja” defies the barriers of genre and age, yet often only in a jumbled cacophony. Violence, language and adult criticisms are coupled with fuzzy intimate moments one would expect only in pre-teen flicks. Nevertheless, though cumbersome and at times difficult to understand, “Okja,” like its namesake, is redeemable in its soulfulness. Tender, incredibly human moments between Mija and Okja let the audience fall in love with this giant beast — yet in the end, the film’s portrayal of corporate politicians leave viewers also wondering how she would taste.

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jon Ronson adapted Ho’s original screenplay. In fact, Ronson co-wrote the original script with Ho.