Okja (2017) Review
Okja is directed by Bong Joon-Ho (Snowpiercer, Mother) and stars Tilda Swinton (Doctor Strange, Narnia), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler, Southpaw), Paul Dano (Looper, Prisoners), Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror, Love, Rosie) and Seo-Hyun Ahn (The Housemaid, Monster). "Meet Mija, a young girl who risks everything to prevent a powerful, multi-national company from kidnapping her best friend - a massive animal named Okja". The headlines read 'Netflix's 'Okja' gets booed at Cannes' after its premiere - however, when actually clicking on the article it was because of technical reasons. Should people overlook that negative headline and give Okja a chance?
Okja caught me off guard. I haven't watched any trailers as it didn't seem interesting to me - I didn't even know what it was about. Then the film premiered at Cannes to mixed buzz - positive reviews yet the film was surrounded by a negative media storm because of Netflix's controversial involvement. It came on to my radar and I had to check it out - I downloaded it from Netflix for offline viewing and watched it on the plane whilst travelling home from a week abroad. June was a very poor month for films - other than Wonder Woman, I didn't witness a great or even good new release. Okja has stopped that pattern as I really liked (and sometimes loved) this film and I would definitely recommend that everyone at least tries it - people should be talking about how good of a film this is not about the silly Netflix controversy surrounding it.
As I already mentioned, I didn't know too much about the film before clicking play so it was refreshing to find that the majority of the first act was in Korean. I don't usually go out of my way to watch films that are spoken in a foreign language and films like Okja really prove that maybe I should. The storytelling is just as strong, if not better than most of the Hollywood releases I have seen this year. I thought the first act did a good job at establishing a bond between Mija and Okja but also setting up the Super-pig competition (and therefore introducing other characters) which were hints at where the plot would go later on. If I'm being critical, the film did briefly lose some of its momentum towards the beginning of the second act - I thought that the chase through Seoul was a little silly and unbelievable - the film went very quickly from being a quiet and charming relationship study to a bigger and louder action flick, and the action wasn't that gripping. This had me worried. However, the film got itself back together smoothly and the introduction of the ALF drove the film into an unexpected, mysterious and exciting direction. I thought the pacing was well done - the film is at its slowest towards the beginning but from then on the pace continues to gradually increase. Another criticism that I do have is that the film was pretty predictable - I knew exactly where it was going as soon as everything was setup but that doesn't make the film unoriginal - it was inciting to see a film explore GM foods even though it was from an occasionally disturbing viewpoint.
Let's talk about that third act where the whole film became all the more powerful but also all the more discomforting. SPOILERS AHEAD. I knew Okja was going to go dark but it still caught me off guard and was very uncomfortable to watch. As soon as Okja was returned to the Mirando Cooperation, it was very obvious that bad things were going to happen. The shots from Okja's point of view when she is strolling through the lab of other super-pigs that are deformed was very disturbing. However, when Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal) brings in the male super-pig it was just terrible to watch, hear and imagine. The film really does manage to get you caring for Okja and I think that's all in the eyes. However, when production commences at the factory, it really isn't nice what occurs on screen. When Mija interrupts and saves Okja, the moment is gripping and powerful - every time that gun went near Okja's head, I was on the edge of my seat. However, a gold pig that is has a lot of financial worth is able to save Okja - it just shows how greedy and money-obsessed humans can be. These 'animals' are nothing but money to the Mirando Coop. Okja and Mija leaving the factory is a satisfying moment but when the camera shows all of the other super-pigs still being herded up to their death, it just makes you think, Okja is just one - Mija hasn't made a difference to the cause and unfortunate nothing is going to stop a business when their goal is to make money. It was a shocking insight into the food production business. When a young super-pig is tossed out to Mija and Okja, I was on the edge of my seat all over again - I suddenly became attached to the youngster and hoped the best for it too. In my opinion, the baby super-pig represents Mija who grew up without her parents too. I also think there are some parallels between the factories and the concentration camps in Korea that could have been the reason why Mija was disconnected from her parents - she could have had a very similar story. That's what I liked in this film - there is a lot that is open to interpretation and it would honestly be a great film to study. This just proves how this film has been thoughtfully crafted and written.
The acting is strong all-round. Sea-Hyun Ahn is fantastic as Mija - she holds the film well and manages to develop an incredibly believable relationship with a CGI creature. Despite not understanding Korean, I also believed all the emotion in her line delivery and think that she is a young actress to watch who potentially has a very exciting future. This film has been marketed at Tilda Swinton's movie but I was surprised by how little screen time she had. Swinton is a terrific character-actress and her performance was eccentric but not over the top. I also didn't realise that Jake Gyllenhaal was involved in this film - this is the wackiest I have seen Gyllenhaal and I think he did a good job, despite his character being occasionally irritating and often unlikeable. Paul Dano also did a nice job leading the ALF, I really got vibes of Rhys Wakefield's performance in The Purge, but much friendlier. Lily Collins was also another unexpected cast member who had serious Krysten Ritter vibes, I actually thought it was her until the end credits.
Both the cinematography and CG work in Okja are superbly done. The cinematography was beautiful and really captured the landscape well, especially in the first act. I think it also did a good job at capturing the dark horrors of the factory in the final act. The CG work was also incredibly impressive, especially on a $50 million budget - most of that must have been spent on the creation of Okja because she is eloquently realised. I have seen weaker CG work in films with budgets topping $100 million! Praise should go to the team who worked on the character of Okja as they really made her easy to connect to and empathise with, despite being a creature created in a lab. As previously mentioned, lots of emotion and feels came from the eyes and if any less had been done on creating emotion in Okja's eyes, the ending wouldn't have been as powerful and a believable relationship between Okja and Mija may have failed to develop. I did think the score choices were a little odd at times and occasionally didn't work.
Okja is a film that is sweet and charming but also really tugs at the heart-strings. On the surface, Okja is a creature feature about a girl and pig but there are so many different levels to this film - it's got deep messages hidden underneath and I like that. Always entertaining despite being relatively predictable but very original. The visuals are extremely well done and the performances are all strong. It's really quite hard to fault Okja and I am pleased to have watched it. Okja is powerful, refreshing, interesting and thought-provoking. Definitely a favourite of 2017 so far.