MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Okja’ is impressive, imperfect and important

A jump into a new era of film, this Netflix original proves that wonder doesn't always have to come from a cinema screen

| June 27, 2017

I have a bit of a bone to pick with Netflix. I can’t say I like how they release their movies too much, especially when it comes to their festival acquisitions. Take for example the film “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” a Netflix release which was acquired for distribution at the Sundance Film Festival in January. This film, directed by actor Macon Blair, went on to win Sundance’s highest honor of the Grand Jury Prize, which joins the ranks of other such films as “Fruitvale Station,” “Whiplash” and “The Birth of a Nation,” which Fox Searchlight Pictures bought for a whopping $17.5 million in 2016. When it was announced that “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” was acquired for distribution by Netflix, the film world watched their next step, as this was a major move for the once humble DVD delivery service turned streaming mega-giant. When the film released in March, no one really realized that it did because Netflix did little to no actual promotion on the film, and within a short period of time, the film faded into obscurity. This is a first time in a very long time for a Grand Jury Prize to receive such little acclaim for its release, and I blame that on Netflix caring little to nothing on its actual distribution. It was then that I realized I wasn’t a big fan of Netflix.

But then came “Okja.”

Does “Okja” change all my feelings on Netflix? Not entirely, but I have to hand it to the streaming giant for their balls to take one of their productions to the Cannes Film Festival, where the film received good reviews, but awful reception due to Netflix’s insistence of not releasing their films in theaters, which many, myself included, are purists on. This is where my adoration goes to Amazon Studios, for releasing their films in theaters before making them available on their streaming platform, something I find very admirable on their part. But Netflix does pull me in with its production style, as there simply isn’t a studio today that would put $50 million up on a film’s budget and give the filmmaker full creative control. While this sometimes might make for some missteps, this is an incredibly admirable and important move for the film industry to be going in, and the fact that Netflix actually is taking the time and energy to promote “Okja” makes it even better, even if it could still use some improvement.

But like the promos ask incessantly, you might still be wondering: what is “Okja?”

Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) is a young Korean girl living in rural solitude with her grandfather, Heebong (Byung Heebong) and their “super-pig,” Okja. When Mija finds out that their super-pig was simply a marketing ploy from the Mirando Corporation, an international food producer, headed by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), to promote the cultivation of this new super-pig into their food products. When Okja is taken from Mija to New York City for the finale of this 10-year search for the best super-pig, Mija follows him, along with an animal rights activist group, headed by Jay (Paul Dano), to New York to save Okja from the Mirando Corporation and a burnt out, borderline sadistic, incredibly eccentric face of the Mirando Corporation, television star Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Okay, so I admit that “Okja” sounds a bit kooky from the start, and let me assure you, it is, but it’s much more carefully structured and meticulously built that it works incredibly well as a dark, twisted take on the “Man’s Best Friend” adventure trope. This is a film that’s kooky and crazy, unique and sometimes a bit wild, but never goes overboard in being quirky or cheesy in its execution. The film finds a balance between this and the inherently dark nature that the film has from the start. This isn’t some PG-rated family film, and while the film is not currently rated by the MPAA, this film would definitely take on an R-rating had it been theatrically released. But the beauty of “Okja” is that this film wouldn’t exist without a company like Netflix to give full creative control to Bong Joon-ho, a filmmaker already known for his eccentricities. I would hate to see what “Okja” would’ve turned into had it been released by a major studio, and this level of uniqueness that has hardly ever been seen on a big screen before really is helping Netflix win me over.

The performances in “Okja” are incredibly fun to watch. Ahn is an incredibly emotive young actress who gives it her all as Mija, who is fighting for this CGI creature as another character would fight for their mother in another, less interesting movie. There’s a fire in her that makes me think her career will be long and prosperous. Whether she continues her career exclusively in South Korea or if she makes the jump to English-language cinema, I have no doubt her career will thrive. But it’s the supporting characters who really shine in the film, especially that of the villains. Swinton, a second-time villain in a Bong movie (the first being “Snowpiercer”) is such a delight to watch as the childlike Lucy that it sometimes makes you forget that she’s a borderline sociopathic bureaucrat who cares for nothing but her legacy and the legacy of her corporation. This is actually quite an understated performance from Swinton, and while we get some of her bubblegum pop side of her at the start, her malevolent nature is one of a gentle caretaker’s, not of a angry super-villain, and to make such a conflicting character out of a villain is truly spectacular. Along with Swinton, Gyllenhaal also makes for an incredibly fascinating villain as TV has-been Wilcox. This is quite possibly the strangest performance that Gyllenhaal has ever done, and while it is a tad grating, it’s incredibly refreshing to see Gyllenhaal take such a risk on a role, as well as Bong not being afraid to make a villain quite funny in execution, while also never backtracking on his atrocities. Giancarlo Esposito also does fine work as the Mirando’s assistant, Frank Dawson.

Back when Netflix announced that they would begin production on their own original films, people wondered what financial situations Netflix would be placed in from this, and what quality of films would they produce when put into production. Whatever fears I had for that were taken down with “Okja,” which is an absolutely beautiful film that uses CGI to the best of its abilities to create these wonderfully detailed and incredibly charming super-pigs. The visual effects work in this film is second-to-none, and rival anything any major studio is doing today. But the work on these creature cannot go understated in its detailed work. This is an incredibly impressive visual feat that changes up the film world in that it came from Netflix.

But is there anything in “Okja” that doesn’t work? Sure. Whenever a studio gives filmmakers full creative control on a film, there’s bound to be some creative choice that not everyone might initially align with. If anything in this movie truly turned me off, it would probably be its occasional, but not singular use of scatological humor in many scenes. I’m just not a fan of poop humor, but I know many find it quite funny. Audiences might find “Okja” a little hard to approach at first, given that the film structurally resembles that of a Korean film than that of an American film, which I really dug, but many might not. East Asian films and American films differ in that resolutions aren’t always perfect, and the films, however bright, colorful and cute they might be, have zero trouble switching to incredibly dark material very quickly. Bong does this masterfully, but for those expecting a big blockbuster might be shocked to find how structurally intimate “Okja” is.

Also, even though it’s on Netflix, fast forward to after the credits, there’s an extra scene worth seeing.

“Okja” is a film that really opens up the floodgates for what it means to be a Netflix original film. This is a beautifully unique film with some truly thrilling and wonderfully funny scenes that only a filmmaker like Bong could pull off with creative control. I still might not like how Netflix promotes and distributes their films, but for how “Okja” was produced and the final product we get out of it, I’m willing to ignore that. I hope this film opens up a lot of audiences to the world of Bong Joon-ho and really help it become a Netflix smash, just so Netflix can see that promotion does equal success. It’s not perfect, as there are some pacing issues that come from Bong’s style and some humor that doesn’t always land, but it’s impossible to resist a Bong Joon-ho movie when you see one, and given how incredibly unique and free he is as a filmmaker, there’s no one who could’ve made “Okja” at all, let alone in this manner.

4/5

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo-hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik-choi, with Giancarlo Esposito, and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Runtime: 120 minutes
Rating: Not rated
Available to stream on Netflix on June 28.

Netflix presents, a Netflix original film, a Plan B Entertainment production, a Lewis Pictures production, a Kate Street Picture Company production, a film by Bong Joon-ho, “Okja”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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