Thanks to a special invitation from Netflix, I got a chance to see an advance screening of director Bong Joon Ho’s new crazy tale of genetically modified meat ‘Okja’, which arrives on Netflix June 28th. Bong, who also wrote the story of this film, has created a film with echoes of other kid-animal flicks, especially 'Pete's Dragon', 'Babe', 'Free Willy' and 'Chicken Run.' But ‘Okja’ isn’t another kiddie movie. With 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, this film comes just in time for summer that seriously threatens the core component of barbecues, baseball games, and block parties. To be blunt, ‘Okja’ may force you to put down that hot dog. This uneven movie is about a girl, her giant adorable pet pig and an evil corporation that wants to separate them — into bacon strips. There's not a lot of suspicions here: The bad guys are very bad and the heroes are very good.
The story starts out in the remote mountains of South Korea, young Mija (An Seo Hyun) has raised and bonded with 'Okja', one of a batch of “super-piglets” created by the agrichemical corporation Mirando as a potential solution to global hunger. 'Okja' is a gentle giant, bred to tread softly upon the earth – to “consume less feed, produce fewer excretions”, but (most importantly) to “taste f***ing good”. Yet she’s also intelligent and empathetic enough to cater and treat Mija nicely when she becomes in deadly danger. That, of course, means little to Mirando’s wall-toothed CEO Lucy (Tilda Swinton, reuniting with Bong after Snowpiercer), who retrieves her prize product to take part in a porcine beauty pageant in the US, intent on serving her up on a plate.
Desperate to save her friend, Mija heads to New York, crossing paths with the chaotically idealistic Animal Liberation Front, led by Paul Dano’s Jay, who plans to use Okja as a mole in Mirando’s evil labs and slaughterhouses. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal’s plays a washed up celebrity zoologist who's a sweating, hysterical mess in shorts and knee-high socks and wrestles with his conscience as the public face of carnivorous corporate greed. Applauds go out to the visual effects that bring 'Okja' to life in a manner that combines massive physical weight with cute and cuddly charm. CGI 'Okja' slips seamlessly, from the blue-green beauty of the mountain tops to the increasingly gross and harsh environments the slaughterhouse and labs (warning: these scenes will make you cringe).
That said, as much as 'Okja' has its sobering moments, it’s just as filled with Bong Joon-ho’s surreal approach to humor, much of which is derived from seeing a string of well-known actors/actresses let loose like they’re guest starring on an episode Yo Gabba Gabba! Some of the scenes were crazy and over the top, especially Jake Gyllenhall’s character, but for some odd reason, it all worked together.
Last month at the Cannes festival (where 'Okja' premiered in competition), there were some controversies about Netflix’s distribution model and the focus of heated debates about “real films” being shown in cinemas, not on television screens. 'Okja' deserves to be seen on the big screens, but we have streaming services like Netflix to thank for its strange existence.
Whether or not the Netflix controversy surrounding 'Okja' has improved or worsened its chances upon release, this is a film that deserves to stand proudly on its own as one of this year's must-sees. It was an exciting and yet emotional rollercoaster ride for me. Great casts, great storyline, great settings, and 'Okja' will make you fall in love with her.
I give it 4 out of 5 stars. ‘Okja’ hits Netflix on June 28th.