Overview: A young girl tries to take her pet super-pig back from an insidious corporation with bad intent; Netflix; 2017; 120 Minutes.
Starting Big and Slow: After an inspired opening that introduces yet another eccentric role from screen chameleon Tilda Swinton, you can feel Director Bong Joon-ho’s maddened ambition yearning to burst the seams of his new film’s quieter, calmer pockets. After the zany dystopian-like opening (it’s a bit too contemporary to call it out-and-out dystopia, really, but it feels inspired by like-minded sci-fi, so maybe our world has finally caught up to its late 20th Century literary doomsayers), Okja spends its opening act on a peaceful South Korean hillside. It’s here that Joon-ho is perhaps over-extending the audience’s patience in pursuit of a tricky Spielbergian ’80s adventure setup to establish the friendship between the titular superpig—who looks more like a hippopotamus to me but who am I to split hairs with visionary fiction—and her barely adolescent companion, Mija (the emotional core of the film, played by Ahn Seo-hyun). Perhaps because, in deceptive presentation of more standard genre fare, this sequence feels like an obstacle to a filmmaker who works best when unhinged (as evident in his previous work in The Host, Snowpiercer) or maybe because Okja herself proves to be a somewhat uncinematic hero creature, with her imprecise CGI and her size obfuscating sympathetic contextual framing that worked for, say, E.T. or Babe (both issues which actually might actually render better on the Netflix-delivered home screens, in spite of the well-documented controversy), but the opening of Okja proves to be the least interesting of its parts. But once Steve Irwin-inspired TV animal expert Dr. Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and crew take Okja to be returned to New York City as the winner of a decade-ago promised contest, Mija gives pursuit, and that better movie comes through.
Moving Big and Fast: In spite of its big and clumsy center, the thrill and joy of Okja is all of its moving parts, including Swinton’s surprise dual roles, possibly Gyllenhaal’s best turn in a good movie since his Villenueve pairings, and Paul Dano and Steven Yeun leading a PETA-like rebel animal rights group (Animal Liberation Front, or ALF, as its graffiti’d acronym proclaims). From the moment Mija fearlessly hurls herself like wrecking ball into the glass wall of a corporate office, the film unravels into a frenetic collection of engaging chase sequences and thinly prepared heist plans. If the opening misconstrues the charm of adventure movies of previous decades, the second act of Okja improves upon their sense of good-hearted adventure. Even if the film never lets one forget its more political intent. Much will be said about the direct satire condemning corporate interests, genetic modification, and soulless industry, and just as many will feel compelled to dismiss the film as a slick carnivore guilt trip, but credit must extend further than that.
Ending Big and Deep: As an unconventional adventure film adopting a satirical target (or perhaps an experimental satire shooting with an adventure arrow), Okja‘s central mission ends on a note that is unconventional to either. The conclusion of all of Mija’s, ALF’s, and Mirando Corporation’s efforts is at once touching, saddened, hopeful, and hopeless. For Mija and Okja, the journey until this point has been a straight line, an adventure, an A-to-B rescue as familiar as anything in film, but surrounding the two of them are countless and complex narrative circles, all of the story’s main players having traveled through a full arc, the sort of development often lacking in main characters. But, in the solemn epilogue, I found myself amazed to think back at the tales of redemption and punishment, both deserved and undeserved, each journey fully fleshed on the peripherals, as if they were central to the story the whole time. In this way, Okja‘s satire is more layered than it seems in focus against the standard pursuit of its main characters, a tricky story about the human involvement (and culpability) in inhumane corporate systems, measuring just how deep we are into this dark trap of malicious capitalism.
Overall: Really, every minor yarn matters, each little intricacy needing another, until Bong Joon-Ho’s newest work lands as a film as haunting as it is immediately entertaining. Because of this, Okja may just be Netflix’s first big feature film victory.