With his sixth feature film, South Korean filmmaker Bong-Joon Ho has given audience a cross-cultural, E.T. Meets Road Dahl-esque story with plenty of heart, humour and unique visual storytelling that makes him one of the leading figures in great world cinema of the 21st Century.
The Netflix exclusive movie was first shown to audiences at the Cannes film festival earlier this year, to the overwhelming sound of booing to the mere sight of the Netflix logo as the first image shown for the film. This was perhaps inevitable for an event such as Cannes, not only in that the rules in France permit streaming services to show a film unless it has been released for more than 3 years but also in the elitist and often pretentious nature of the festival itself, concerning itself with “real cinema” and not what may have been initially regarded as entertainment being shown on an inferior format. I say initially, as once the credits began to roll, the film was met with four minutes of standing ovation. Perhaps even more of an indicator that Netflix is becoming ever more the place for interesting and creative storytelling, both in television an film.
Okja tells the story of of controversial corporation by the name of Mirando Corporation, concerning itself creating a breed of “Super Pig” to farm and feed the people of the world. The CEO, played brilliantly by actress Tilda Swinton, announces to the world that 26 of these Super Pigs have been bred genetically and sent across the world for a competition to see which country has bred the best Super Pig. This is where Okja comes, raised in South Korea by an elderly farmer and his granddaughter, the lead human character of the film Mija played by South-Korean child actress Ahn Seo-hyun, who steals the film with her performance. Inevitably Okja is crowned the best of the Super Pigs after ten years living in the forests of South Korea, and is taken away to America to be slaughtered, leading to an action packed, cross-country adventure for Mija to reunite with her Super Pig friend.
What really struck me with the film is its eclectic nature, both in the range of emotions the audience feels while watching this movie, and also in its sensibilities. Bong-Joon Ho is a filmmaker who already has an incredible and eclectic body of work, from the phenomal Police Procedural drama Memories of Murder to the thrilling monster movie The Host, but it is with this film and its multi-cultural collaborators from all across the globe do we get a film that provides us with an insight into what different cultures have to offer in the way of art and storytelling.
On a visual level, much like his other work, Bong-Joon Ho gives us beautiful images often of staggering contrast. Going from the lush gorgeous forests of South-Korea to the drab, grey streets of New York we as an audience can see through colour palette alone how we are meant to feel about each given situation, a great example of “show not tell” that is also prevalent through the use of camera angles in the movie. It is also a great indicator as to the journey Mija takes from childhood to adolescence, being cast into this dark adult world of unethical food production and the hardened capitalist nature of the film’s “villains.”
We believe this journey that we take with Mija, as the actress Ahn Seo-Hyun is so believable in the role. We are also treated with a cast of great actors from all across the globe. Jake Gyllenhaal playing a completely wacky and eccentric TV Zoologist (think Steve Irwin meets Jim Carrey) in one of my favourite roles he has ever played, Paul Dano and Steve Yeun as members of the Animal Liberation Front and as previously mentioned Tilda Swinton playing a role that although villainous in nature does show some vulnerability as the film progresses. It is this interesting ensemble cast that also makes Okja a very unique film.
Attention must also be given to the titular lead himself however: Okja the Super Pig. The creature is completely CGI (presumably no Super Pigs passed the audition), appearing only to the actors as two men operating a wireframe Super Pig outline. CGI is of course very prevalent in many modern blockbusters, and it is very easy to take this for the artificial display that it is. However, with Okja the filmmakers have successfully created a creator who shows joy, sadness and vulnerability, making for a creature that we as an audience find ourselves sympathising with and also relishing moments of happiness with.
This last point is important, as the movie has no issue with taking audiences through all the emotions one can feel through the power of good cinema. For a film about an adorable Super Pig, we are still exposed to moments of sheer harrowing bleakness that will be as powerful as anything you see in the cinema this year. It is very clear and unflinching in its message, making this something that perhaps if theatrically released would be considered too dark and either be rewritten or not financed at all. Under Netflix however, a bastion for creative expression at this time, we are given a film of confidence in artistic vision and what it has to say, providing characters of great entertainment but also great empathy, a story evoking a great range of emotion under a director who Quentin Tarantino himself has likened to “Spielberg in his prime.” This is I feel a very worthy comparison, and in this comparison one can also say that Bong-Joon has given us his E.T., a movie that is heartwarming, personal but also exciting and fun, and a film that I highly recommend checking out.