Okja is a clever film and I’ll explain why at some point in this review.
Recently it was argued at the Cannes film festival that Netflix Original films do not belong in festivals. I believe they were wrong, and this film serves a neat argument to why we should be aware of them at the circuits. In fact, this is one of the movies that got caught up in the storm of the debate.
To summarise the premise of Okja – a young girl called Mija sets out on an ambitious mission to save a super pig that she has looked after for 10 years. The super pig (Ojka) was given to her family as part of a genetically modified programme by a big multi-national company who have set up a worldwide competition for farmers to see who can nurture the best one. When Mija realises that they are taking away Ojka, she makes it her quest to save the animal. Make no mistake, the premise on paper sounds like an unstable narrative, but it works very well and I’ll explain why this movie is clever.
I’m not a vegan, I’m not an animal rights activist, and no one close to me is, but I completely understand what they are fighting for and what they believe in. What really irks me is when proud meat eaters get their keyboards out on social media and proudly berate these people. I sometimes rise to their defence, but then again I’m essentially a hypocrite. I eat meat. Not proudly. In fact, I consciously do not eat meat during the week apart from weekends. No matter what category you sit in when it comes to animals it would be troublesome if you did not feel any guilt or shred of emotion after watching this movie.
The movie humanises the super pig but not by giving Okja the ability to do human things. It does so by spending a good 20 minutes showing Mija and Okja spending time together in a variety of different jungle-like locations in the mountains of South Korea. This sounds boring, but it is not. In fact, this is the film’s way of showing their relationship, and in that, you see the super pig as a character, not an animal – humanised. By the time Mija sets off on her quest to take on the big company to get her Okja back, you are emotionally invested, and then you find yourself supporting the message it is conveying about the mass production of animals. This is why the movie is clever: because it could have been any animal, a super chicken if you will, but you never expect to sit there caring about what is considered in modern society a farm animal.
Just because it manages to transport that message from the screen to the audience does not make it a good film, but it is good. It is actually a great film. The CGI pig looks very realistic as it engages in a variety of different locations. Okja interacts with Mija in many scenes and at one point I forgot that the animal was created by a computer. Seo-Hyeon Ahn puts in an honest performance of a young innocent girl with fiery determination, and I think she did very well to maintain such a performance when a lot of it is interacting with something that is technically not there. Jake Gyllenhaal is also in this doing a very un-Gyllenhaal performance as character Dr. Johnny Wilcox, who is basically promoted as a caring animal doctor by the big company. His character is strange and I’m still undecided to whether it is a good performance. It is definitely an interesting role he has taken on. Usually, with Netflix Original films, there’s usually one performance that bugs me, like Brad Pitt in War Machine, but I do not think any member of the cast in this did anything, in particular, that put me off the movie.
By the time you witness Mija venture across Seoul and then to America you are essentially watching a different movie, where you are introduced to newer characters and you are completely removed from the wilderness of the jungle-like surroundings. It works and the characters that are introduced serve to the purpose of the plot. My previous criticism of Netflix Originals is that I feel at times they over stretch the premise. Okja suffers from the same problem but it can be forgiven due to a genuine investment in the outcome of the story.
If Okja was never shown or created due to the arrogant belief that streaming films should not show their face at festivals then it would have been a great shame. This is one of the better Netflix funded movies and amongst a very low benchmark, this is one of their best. Director Joon-ho Bong has managed to create a great movie adventure / Sci-Fi centred around a super pig which you care about. If you eat meat and feel slightly emotional by the third act then you’ll probably feel like a hypocrite too. The power of movies.
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Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.