‘Okja’: Bong Joon Ho on His Loopy, Lyrical Netflix Masterpiece
The fantastical adventure from master filmmaker Bong Joon Ho plays like a cross of ‘E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,’ ‘Babe,’ and ‘My Neighbor Totoro.’
The thrills are in the idiosyncrasies in Okja, a uniquely off-kilter adventure about a girl and her beloved super-pig, and the corporate bigwigs who want to send that beast to the slaughterhouse. Lyrical and loopy, it’s a strange, sweeping creature-feature that stands as one of the year’s absolute bests. And, like its irresistibly expressive protagonist, it’s something of a mutant hybrid—an English-South Korean co-production that plays like a cross between E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Babe, and My Neighbor Totoro.
That synthesis is the hallmark of its director, Bong Joon Ho, best known stateside for 2006’s The Host and 2013’s Snowpiercer, and the rare filmmaker to truly earn the distinction “Spielberg-ian” thanks to his gift for grand genre epics marked by profound empathy for its harried characters. Headlined by a gigantic CGI animal who’s as loyal as he is brave and poops like crazy, and boasting a story that swings wildly between children’s fable, eco-conscious parable, cartoonish comedy, and sci-fi nightmare, it’s like nothing else coming to theaters this summer—and, in fact, it’s not coming to most theaters at all.
That’s because Okja (starring a creepy Tilda Swinton and an even more eccentric Jake Gyllenhaal) is the latest high-profile original film from Netflix, who’ll release it online on June 28, the same day the service simultaneously drops it in a few token multiplexes—a strategy also employed for their Brad Pitt-led Afghanistan satire War Machine. As such, it’s a pioneer of a new paradigm, albeit one that got Bong’s movie into hot water when, at its premiere at May’s Cannes Film Festival, organizers (and jury president Pedro Almodóvar) objected to its inclusion because it violated a French law which stipulates that films can’t appear on home-viewing platforms (i.e., digital streaming, or Blu-ray/DVD) until 36 months after their theatrical opening.
A month removed from the festival and its stick-in-the-mud old guard critics, Bong seems at peace with the brouhaha that engulfed Okja. “I understand the content of the controversy, but myself, and filmmakers such as Noah Baumbach [whose Netflix feature The Meyerowitz Stories was met with similar Cannes censure] are merely creators, and we have never studied French law,” he says via translator. “So if there was anything that needed to be solved logistically, it should have been done before we were invited.”
From a purely experiential standpoint, Okja deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Still, that most will watch it on a TV, tablet, or smartphone is a small price to pay for its very existence, which can be attributed to the fact that the streaming giant—also currently in business with Martin Scorsese, Jeremy Saulnier, Duncan Jones, Mike Flanagan, and David Ayer, among others—is now the rare industry power player to put up serious money for directors’ daring passion projects. Filling the void between the superhero-infatuated major Hollywood studios and the financially strapped indie outfits, Netflix is quickly becoming the place to be for world cinema’s most interesting, eclectic filmmakers.
Speaking two weeks before Okja’s global debut, Bong credits the company with stepping up where others wouldn’t, saying that while traditional studios disliked the material’s oddness, and smaller firms balked at its $50 million budget, “Netflix, on the other hand, OK-ed the budget. And not only did they OK the budget; they guaranteed 100 percent freedom,” he says. “They said you don’t need to change one word of the script, you can just do whatever you want. They supported my vision completely, so I wouldn’t hesitate to work with again Netflix at all.”
Netflix’s backing is all the more impressive given the sheer strangeness of the director’s drama, which rampages from lush mountaintops to Seoul streets to Paramus, New Jersey, warehouses. Its story concerns a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) who lives with her kindly grandfather (Hee-Bong Byun) on a remote peak with Okja, one of a handful of genetically modified swine who, years earlier, were created by the Mirando Corporation. After being bred in laboratories, these super-pigs were parceled out to farmers across the globe, ostensibly for a contest to see which cultures could breed the biggest and best hog, but in reality, as a PR ploy designed to endear these beasts to the general public, all so they might later feel more comfortable eating them via Mirando’s pork products. When Okja is selected as the winner, the company comes calling, much to the chagrin of Mija, whose bond with Okja—who looks like a roly-poly hippo, acts like a friendly dog, and is smart enough to understand the secrets Mija whispers in his ear—is so tight-knit that she immediately endeavors to reunite, and reclaim, her BFF.
If that makes the film sound bizarre, it’s only the tip of Okja’s insane iceberg. As Mirando corporation CEO Lucy Mirando (as well as her twin Nancy, who was pushed out of power thanks to her cutthroat malevolence), Tilda Swinton is a sunshiney boardroom cretin, all big-toothed smiles to the camera and petulant nastiness behind closed doors. Convinced that her steroidal-pig-meat plan is noble (and that it’ll result in meals that “taste fucking good”), and compelled to try to monetize Mija and Okja’s relationship for enhanced profits, she’s an exceptionally devious figure, one who prances about at press conferences in white outfits, and in front of propaganda-esque ad posters and CG graphics, like some wackadoo woman-child princess. She is, in short, mesmerizingly weird.
Following Snowpiercer, it’s Swinton’s second straight out-there performance (in ugly prosthetic chompers) for Bong, who praises his leading lady for electrifying his creative process. “Tilda has been a very big source of energy for the past six to seven years,” he says. “I feel that she’s not only a performer but also a co-creator in my films. I get exhausted very easily; Tilda, on the other hand, has this unstoppable energy. And thanks to this energy, I felt like I could create these two films with her.”
Even Swinton’s loony-tunes evil routine is nothing, however, compared to the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal as TV animal-show host (and craven Mirando spokesperson) Dr. Johnny Wilcox. Decked out in jean shorts and glasses, sporting a mustache that’d look great on a second-rate ’70s porn star, and affecting a squeaky whine that radiates egomania and entitlement, Dr. Johnny seems like a castoff from Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” music video. All bug-eyed expressions, flailing limbs, and corrosive amorality, it’s a full gonzo turn, and the most uninhibited—and unexpectedly transfixing—Gyllenhaal has ever been on-screen. When, after being genuinely moved by his first sight of Okja, Dr. Johnny interrupts his special moment to bark at his camerawoman, “Fucking film me, Jennifer. You can’t fake these emotions,” the film hilariously, scarily exposes the lie of his family friendly joviality.
Okja depicts a world in which danger and destruction lurk behind jolly facades, always at the ready to squash out any sign of genuine compassion. That state of affairs is ever-present during Mija’s quest to save Okja, which soon puts her into contact with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), an activist group (led by Paul Dano’s sincere Jay) dedicated to freeing Okja as a means of exposing the truth about Mirando Corp’s villainy. Throughout, Bong’s tale has her traversing a landscape where real peril and violence can emerge at any instant, be it via slips off a cliff, beatings by corporate stormtrooper thugs, or (in the case of sentient cattle) imprisonment at an abattoir where parents are separated from loved ones before being shepherded to their doom.
Even more than its deft seguing between comedic, adventure, and horror-ish modes, it’s Bong’s willingness to infuse his action with genuine, lethal threats—right up to a tragic Holocaust-esque finale—that enhances both Okja’s rousing suspense and emotional power. It’s an approach to which the director remained steadfast, even in the face of studio resistance. “The story was like that from the get-go. I never tried to feign or fake some type of children’s fable and then try to break boundaries and turn it into something explicit,” he confesses. “There were push-backs from traditional studios where I originally pitched the film; they were always asking about the slaughterhouse and whether I was going to keep it in. However, Netflix never asked such questions—they were completely positive and very open-minded about it.”
Like the best of Steven Spielberg’s early efforts, Bong’s work amplifies its sense of childhood wonder and elation by refusing to shy away from life’s ugliness, and by ending on a note of moving, if compromised, triumph. It’s also a film that, courtesy of its beautifully crafted creature, is apt to not only bring joyful tears to the eyes of many moviegoers, but to make some consider, at least temporarily, veganism—as it did Bong, who admits, “I was actually a vegan for only two months during 2015, while I was doing research for the film.” Which makes perfect sense, given that, funny and frenetic, deeply felt and decidedly delirious, all over the place and yet never less than assured, Okja is a rollicking fantasy that suggests you are what you (don’t) eat.