Visionary filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Okja’ premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival to raves. The decision to allow Netflix to compete for the Palme d’Or was a controversial one. When it debut on the streaming site, it bypassed the traditional theatrical release. Now that the dust has settled, is the film any good? If you measure a quality film by the storytelling and emotional resonance then ‘Okja’ is a masterwork. Off the record, ‘Okja’ is not a kid’s movie. The main plot deceptively starts off like a Disney picture only to slam the audience with heady themes later in the film. The story delves into animal abuse, corporate greed and the pitfalls of celebrity. After viewing ‘Okja,’ it just might convince you to go vegetarian. Nevertheless, it is the best movie you will see this year without going to the theater.
In an opening flashback, CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) speaks to the media about her Monsanto-like food conglomerate and its goal to provide the world with cheap, high-quality meat products. She tells them that her company will breed a “superpig” that will “taste f**king good” then send them around the world to be raised on local farms to see who can grow the biggest one. The “white lie” is that these pigs were genetically created in labs to trick the protesters against GMOs. It takes 10 years for one pig to grow to maturity. Fast forward 10 years where we meet Okja on a picturesque farm nestled along plush mountaintops in South Korea. She is under the care of a teenage girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), who genuinely loves the adorable swine. There is a tender sweetness to their friendship as they use the countryside as their playground. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris) beautifully shoots the lush scenes in widescreen to symbolize the animal and girl’s freedom.
Mija’s parents are dead so she lives with her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) who tells her that they bought Okja from the corporation. She soon realizes that this is another white lie when the company shows up to take her to the best pig competition. The girl goes on a journey to find her best friend and bring her back to the mountains. Mija follows Okja from Seoul, Korea to Manhattan and eventually to a plant in New Jersey where other pigs wait to be slaughtered. The slaughterhouse scenes are very dark and not suited for small children to view. Just when you think that Okja’s time is running out, an Animal Liberation Federation (ALF) comes to the rescue and works with Mija to try to get her back home to the mountains. The animal rights group is led by Jay (Paul Dano) along with Red (Lily Collins). There is a terrific chase scene in an underground shopping mall where Mija and Okja are chased by Mirando Corporation heavies.
The story will tug at your heartstrings. We get to know Okja and care about her. We want Mija to take her back home to the mountains. Okja is the size of a hippo with doleful eyes that convey a highly caring and intelligent animal. Ahn’s performance as Mija is remarkable for a newcomer. She is stubborn and resourceful as she will go to any length to protect her friend from the evil adults. It’s hard to resist the kind-hearted Okja. Bong shifts tone at lightning speed. It quickly changes from a family friendly romp in the woods to the bleak cityscape of Manhattan. Khonji expertly makes the city look claustrophobic as Mija desperately finds a way to escape with Okja. The language gets dicey and the horrors of meat processing might not be for everyone. Bong is making a bold statement about the morality of meat production. The mastery of the film is how our heroine Mija’s love for Okja gives her the strength to do the right thing in a corrupt world.
‘Okja’ is a beautiful and thought-provoking film. Swinton has fun as the evil CEO but it is Seo-Hyun Ahn as the 13-year-old girl that steals the show. There is a purity of spirit in her performance that is magical. This provocative film is a must-see but prepare yourself to deal with some emotional fireworks. ‘Okja’ is now playing on Netflix.