The debate over Netflix’s worth on the cinematic marketplace is destined to rage on like the Hundred Years’ War. There’s a nuance, a debate to be found in this argument, yes, but one thing must at least be admitted: Netflix brought us the new Bong Joon-ho where theatrical distribution had previously failed.
Despite an all-star cast (Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton) and a catchy premise (society microcosmed on a train), Bong’s Snowpiercer has never been released on UK shores; it’s left fans, particularly of his 2006 monster flick The Host, feeling particularly aghast with cinematic FOMO.
For good reason, since Bong is a director of the truly unmissable variety: a creator utterly unique in his approach, who can spin tone with the deftness of a spider nurturing its web. A Bong Joon-ho film has the ability to be harrowing and hilarious, sweet and nihilistic. His gaze unveils a world that is cruel and ruthless to its core, but which never leaves us without hope – even if it’s to be found in the most minute of places.
All true of Okja, which, if anything, actually allows the South Korean filmmaker to grow even more ambitious in his scope. The titular creature is a super-pig bred by the Mirando Corporation as a futuristic food source that’s cheaper to produce and has less of an impact on the environment. Plus, as CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) notes, they “taste fucking good”.
In a swish marketing move, several of these super-pigs are sent around the world to be raised through traditional, local methods; one, Okja, ends up on a remote farm in South Korea, where a little girl named Mija lives. And so, Okja and Mija grow up together, becoming the very best of friends in the process.
This, at its very centre, is a tale of the purity of friendship found in childhood pets. In a similar vein to last year’s Pete’s Dragon, Okja relies on the conjuring of a CGI creature that blends just enough dog-like traits into its fantastical features as to be utterly irresistible to audiences. The blind loyalty, the effusive affection, a touch of goofy clumsiness; for anyone whose childhood was accompanied by a beloved pup, it's hard not to feel the sweeping touch of sweet nostalgia here.
Unlike Pete’s Dragon, however, Okja sees Bong Joon-ho deploy that sentimental attachment in service of a quite brutal, and devastating, statement about our attitude towards meat consumption. Yes, this is the kind of film that turns people vegan.
In the film, Okja is taken from Mija to be sent to New York City and put on display at a super-pig festival, and we’re swiftly reminded of the gulf between Mija’s perception of her best friend and the Mirando Corporation’s treatment of animal life as industrial material, painted in the most vivid and unflinching means possible.
That said, as much as Okja has its sobering moments, it’s just as filled with Bong Joon-ho’s characteristically surreal approach to humour, much of which is derived from seeing a string of highly-acclaimed actors let loose like they’re guest starring on an episode Yo Gabba Gabba!.
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Swinton’s Lucy is the wildly upbeat, deeply insincere face of environmentally conscious capitalism; Jake Gyllenhaal plays a washed up celebrity zoologist who's a sweating, hysterical mess in shorts and knee-high socks; Paul Dano gets to beat somebody up for perhaps the first time in his entire cinematic career. Everyone here treads beautifully the line between complex, engaging characters and wild pantomime.
Whether or not the Netflix controversy surrounding Okja and its Cannes premiere has improved or worsened its chances upon release matters little, in the end. This is a film that deserves to stand proudly on its own as one of this year's cinematic gems, and another stellar entry into Bong Joon-ho's unique catalogue of work.
Okja hits Netflix on 28 June, after screening at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival on 25 June.
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