With Okja, Netflix proves itself once again to be one of the most important distributors of original and creative content.
Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) wants to save the company that her family destroyed, called the Mirando Corporation. To do so, she launches a promotional program placing Super Pigs with farmers across the world. The Super Pigs are advertised as an environmentally friendly and cost effective food source.
Ten years later, a young girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), is best friends with her grandfather’s Super Pig, Okja. The Mirando Corporation sends faded television personality Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) to each of the farms to judge which Super Pig is the biggest, for the Best Super Pig competition.
Mija tries to get Okja back, as the animal rights group, Animal Liberation Front, or ALF, (which includes Paul Dano, Lily Collins, and Steven Yeun) aims to help her in an attempt to expose the Mirando Corporation.
Okja tries its best to juggle a dense theme with a large cast of characters. It mostly succeeds, but it is disappointing to see the ignored potential. The beautiful visuals paired with colorful and strong performances help carry the movie when the story becomes a little shallow.
Okja is directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho, the director of the 2014 film Snowpiercer. With such a fantastic movie under his belt, it is no surprise to see the director stretch his immense artistic ability, to tell a story of a larger scope. Unfortunately, that becomes one of Okja’s greatest weaknesses.
While Snowpiercer was confined to a train, Okja has the space of the entire world. With this much freedom, Okja tries to be too many things. At its core, it’s a heartfelt story about a young girl and her animal best friend, which remains the strongest element of the film.
However, too many characters and a complicated social and political message are prominent in the film as well. These have brief shining moments, but mostly get tossed to the background. This is disappointing because their fleeting presence shows potential for fascinating stories beyond what there is space for in a two-hour movie.
Because there is so much going on in Okja, the story moves so fast, that it even neglects its main goal of the relationship between Mija and Okja. There are multiple wonderfully filmed action sequences, but it feels like the movie builds up to these sequences as centerpieces at times, instead of focusing on the main story.
Okja becomes more of a spectacle by emphasizing these action sequences, making it an incredibly fun movie at times, but it does not leave enough time to explore character. However, bits of character do shine through.
By virtue of the plot, Mija has a single goal of saving Okja, and that is entirely what her character is built around. Not much else is shown, but Seo-hyun’s intense determination in the role carries the movie, as an incredibly capable protagonist, successfully guiding the emotional core.
A large theme in Okja is the juxtaposition between Mija’s abilities and the adults’ incompetence. Nothing proves this more than Gyllenhaal’s performance as Wilcox. This character is completely different than any character Gyllenhaal has ever played, and any moment he is onscreen is either hilarious or terrifying. There are even certain scenes where he is in the background, out of focus, but is still doing something hysterical. The character is so over-the-top, beyond Disney villain level, in a way that is not annoying, but impressive.
It is however, really frustrating how under-utilized the ALF members are. This is largely due to the problem that they cannot be villainized, because of their noble pursuit, but cannot seen as too heroic, as to not draw attention from Mija, and to emphasize that the group is problematic. As to avoid either of these paths, individual members of ALF do not have a large presence in the movie. The ALF members all seem quirky and interesting, but do not get a chance to develop.
Okja is incredibly powerful in its messages about the meat industry. Although the movie could seem like a kids’ movie, with a child protagonist and a cute animal, the accurate representation of the meat industry is terrifying. Okja is incredibly brutal showing the harsh realities about this, and even more so due to successfully making the audience sympathize with Okja.
This film recently brought up controversy at Cannes, for being distributed by Netflix, and not having been traditionally released in theaters. At least, Netflix is willing to take a chance on making a movie as creative as this. However, watch Okja on the biggest screen you have; a movie this beautiful was not made for a phone screen.
Okja is not a perfect movie, but it is an incredible exhibition of artistic vision. The biggest problem about the movie is there was too much story to tell. Okja does clearly have an agenda, but it is effective in presenting it. It is never too preachy, and makes sure to show both sides as nuanced. The incredible cinematography and performances, make this movie a must-watch.