‘Okja’ a Timeless Parable Against Corporate Greed (FILM REVIEW)

[rating=7.00]

At first glance, Bong Joon-Ho’s latest film, Okja, one of the more controversial entries into this year’s Cannes Festival (due to its release on Netflix rather than in wide theatrical release), seems like another in a long line of E.T. rip offs. There’s certainly a comparison there to be made; both feature adorable child leads who befriend a strange creature and have to fight forces beyond their understanding to ensure the safety of their non-human buddy.

Beyond that, the comparisons are superficial. With Okja, Joon-Ho has crafted a subtle character drama packed inside an unsubtle critique of modern culture. Corporatism runs rampant, working tirelessly against the needs and desires of the little guy, and ethics is a flimsy concept. Philosophically, Okja doesn’t exactly add anything new to the conversation. The faceless corporation as villain motif is a tried and true pathway for narrative intrigue, but Joon-Ho manages to walk this familiar territory with as only he can manage.

The corporate baddie here is Mirando. Led by new CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the company is attempting to reform its public image after a series of unnamed sins committed by her father and sister. Her plan involves solving world hunger using a new breed of super-pig, like the titular Okja who has been raised by a Korean farmer and his granddaughter, Mija (Seo-Hyun Anh). After a decade of raising Okja, the pig and girl have formed an incredible bond of friendship that’s tested when Mirando comes to collect their animal.

Joon-Ho does a remarkable job at making us care about Okja and Mija from the very get go. After a brief overview in the form of a press conference from Lucy, we’re taken to the remote mountain farm of Mija’s grandfather, where she an Okja frolic and play among the forest. There’s clearly an intelligence in Okja as we witness the creature showing the ability to think and problem solve—in one harrowing moment, Mija is hanging off the side of a cliff and it’s up to Okja to rescue her. The two are almost impossible adorable together, and any kid who sees Okja will no doubt want a stuffed Okja of their own.

Not that kids should watch this. The film is filled with violent and intense moments that make this family friendly seeming film anything but family friendly. Don’t let the inherent cuteness of Okja fool you, this is a thematically complex work that will alternately bore and frighten younger kids. Especially near the end as the Mirando slaughterhouses are explored.

Okja’s cuteness isn’t meant to sell merchandise; here, the adorability serves a point. Okja is surprisingly relatable for a CGI pig, and audiences can expect to immediately identify with her fear and suffering. (Joon-Ho supposedly committed himself to veganism during filming, to give you an idea of the film’s emotional affect.) As clearly pro-animal rights as Okja is, that’s only one of the layers explored here.

At its core, Okja is a film about corporate greed run amok, and how the corporatist agenda oppresses the little guy even if the aims are beneficial. While the story is about as unsubtle as a punch in the face, Joon-Ho does manage to explore how unchecked corporatism can lead to lies, deceptions, and repression. As the narrative unfolds, the truth about Okja and her fellow super-pigs comes to light, suggesting that even at their most altruistic, corporations are incapable of real human empathy.

While the script may be a bit on the nose, it’s brought to life well by its cast. Swinton is as perfect as ever as Lucy Mirando, embodying the visage of the altruistic capitalist whose obsession with good works is a mask for toxic greed. Jake Gyllenhaal is fascinating as Johnny Wilcox, a sort of Rip Tayloresque celebrity veterinarian who serves as the face of Mirando. Paul Dano is delightful as Jay, a member of the Animal Liberation Front who pledges to help Mija free Okja from Mirando’s grasp.

But the real stars are Ahn and Okja. The young actress is perfect in her role, which is shockingly complex for someone so young. It’s on her shoulders that Okja rests, and she carries the weight well. The connection she shares with her CGI counterpart is real, and the relationship is often fascinating. Anyone who’s ever loved an animal will find plenty to identify with in their relationship.

Though the script and themes are a bit too surface to reach real greatness, Okja is still a surprisingly effective and engaging film that works well for what it is. It’s the kind of risky narrative venture on which Netflix should be making their cinematic name. The streaming giant has made some great leaps in their original content over the past few years, and they’re only getting better. While this is far from their best work, it does represent the kind of filmmaking that they’re capable of spearheading and traditional distribution models should take heed.

Okja is now available for streaming on Netflix.

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