From Bong Joon Ho and Plan B Entertainment, a Netflix Original Film,
Starring: Seo Hyu-Ahn Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Devon Bostick, Lily Collins, Steven Yeun, Jake Gyllenhaal, with Giancarlo Esposito
Budget: $50 million, Music by: Jaeil Jung, Cinematography by: Darius Khondji
It’s always nice to see an original idea well-executed and on a decent budget. With Okja, the second (after the $60 million flop War Machine) in a new line of bigger budget Netflix films there’s a hint early on in the film that this could have been a kind of too-weird misguided passion project for American distribution. After a 2007 set prologue (the movie takes place ten years later in present day) the film takes its time introducing the title figure, a CGI creature who looks like an oversized hippo but is known and referred to as a piglet. Okja spends its time running around the South Korean forest with its human companion Mija and we watch them bond while it excretes projectile manure in a wide shot nature backdrop. Shortly after we meet Jake Gyllenhaal’s Steve Wilcox. Think an American Steve Irwin like figure if he was a washed up alcoholic. This character walks around speaking in English while everyone else speaks Korean, as he along with some other figures in the film behave more often like an anime figures than an actual persons. It would be easy by this point to demonstrate a creative project given too much freedom. Netflix has shown lately it is not invincible and can’t always afford give carte blanche to creative talent, even if it is Snowpiercer director Bong Joon Ho. Fortunately the director is able to rein in these absurd elements just enough to wield a compelling story, one that is original and his own.
The film is about a creature (Okja) genetically engineered by a corporation as a meat alternative and raised in the wilderness to return to America after 10 years for consumption. Along the way back, the animal is hijacked by an animal rights group and our hero Mija is caught in between. The film uses her point of view and those she immediately affects as a lense (often subtle and social media enabled) into product manufacturing and use. In telling this story, Joon-Ho uses just enough time and packs in a few memorable sequences such as a chase through downtown Seoul and brings laughs delivered by memorable characters throughout. It doesn’t always come together nicely, but its high points are well documented through great cinematography and professional acting quality. Paul Dano, at his least annoying is occasionally quite intimidating as the suit-clad leader of the Animal Liberation Front, and Tilda Swinton at her most annoying is given too much screen time and too little to say in a dual role as the heads of the Multi-National Corporation who own the animal (maybe that’s the point). There’s also a nice score to listen to at the end credits, and in addition to the action scenes being well documented, everything is also well photographed. A scene set in the a polished elevator-filled hallway that begins the standout chase sequence shows how the movie flows nicely while appeasing the eye, there’s also plenty of colour for 4K screens out there. The downside is with so many characters and elements the film doesn’t always juggle them well.
The film’s message of environmentalism might be similar to what you’ve seen before but it definitely gets points for dynamism as it questions the lengths environmentalists go to to remain morally clear as well as take the cliche of the ever evil corporation and making them seem slightly less all-powerful and soul crushing in their efforts to control the media circus. Also incorporated are beats of character drama and differing business philosophies, it is a refreshing change of pace however unnecessary parts of it may be. It won’t however convince you to suddenly go vegetarian, as some articles might hope. Some elements introduced aren’t fully paid off leading you to question if all the characters involved were totally necessary and the whip between comedy and drama is a bit over the place, but if it means we get entertaining, well directed and well acted original content, then I’d finally label this a win for Netflix’s feature film production, purveyors of original film, and audiences in general.
Rating: B+ / FilmGamer Continuum: +2
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Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial for the Human-Creature bonding element forming the emotional core of the film.
Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes for further development of this theme with added motion capture technology (though unlike that story Okja would’ve worked better with animatronics rather than CGI to tell its story even if the creature is also genetically engineered)
Of course Bong Joon-Ho’s own Snowpiercer for its use of thematic vehicles to drive a high-concept relatively futuristic plot forward. Here the train as momentum is replaced by a creature itself as the engine to drive the plot forward.
There’s probably another Korean or Japanese film or anime that serves as an influence on here that I can’t think of, someone comment. Oh yeah Pokemon of course, but besides that Studio Ghibli or something.