Netflix has become very good as creating huge hype for their big releases, whether it’s a series of an original film. With Okja, the ball of interest began to roll upon the release of the first bizarre trailer, and the film stayed in the press during the length of the Cannes Film Festival both for its quirky content and as the centre of debate over Netflix’s unwillingness to give their original pictures a traditional theatrical release in French cinemas. Though I’ll always love settling down in the movie theatre, this week I got to enjoy snuggling under my own duvet instead and pressing play on a picture that has been much talked about.
Okja is a South Korean/American project that tells the story of Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), a teenage girl who goes an action filled adventure to save her family pet Okja, a genetically modified super pig created by the mysterious Miranda Corporation who has been taken to New York after ‘winning’ a ten year contest to find the biggest and best of the species. I have seen the film being described as something along the lines of ‘E.T. on steroids’, and whilst I can certainly see the comparisons, there is something about Okja that feels much less nostalgic and much more allegorical and upsetting. In essentially giving the audience a huge pig in the form of a family dog, the narrative of taking Okja from her home and sending her to be processed for meat becomes infinitely more distressing to witness. The hypocritical nature of animal lovers who eat meat is front and centre, and as somebody who very much fits that description, I can’t say that Okja is the most comfortable film watching experience I have ever had. Harmed or distressed animals are my cinematic kryptonite, and though the film is much more than a sombre take on the meat market, it certainly does its best to affect viewers and pull at their heartstrings. It’s not until you are crying full, ugly tears that you remember you are weeping for a fictional, oversized, genetically modified farm animal.
Amidst the genuine sadness of some of the key plot points, there is something really amazingly delightful about Okja as a whole. Eclectic is certainly the key word here, with eccentric characters and a mix of cultures giving a distinctly ‘other worldly’ feel to proceedings. What is essentially a two hour long rescue mission narrative is punctuated with a great deal of dark and sometimes silly humour by the likes of Mirando’s CEO Lucy (Tilda Swinton), company figure head Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) and leader of an influential animal rights group Jay (Paul Dano). The quirky nature of these characters keeps the audience on their toes and stops the film from becoming too serious and descending in to a deeply depressing exploration of animal ethics. Okja flies out of the traps with an arresting and endearing first half, and whilst the tone understandably changes in the home straight, one can’t help but feel that the narrative begins to lag slightly before coming to its conclusion. Not enough, however, to damage my opinion of the film as a complete piece.
The film is lead by Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija, and the young South Korean actress gives a really endearing and accomplished performance alongside a handful of seasoned Hollywood stars. Seo-hyun exudes the kind of pluck and determination without seeming precocious that makes for a brilliant audience surrogate. Mija’s intentions are pure and they are played out by Seo-hyun in an incredibly endearing way. As transformative and eccentric as ever, Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando is a frenzied delight, stealing every scene in which she appears, including a cameo as her character’s twin sister Nancy. Paul Dano as a sombre but passionate animal rights activist proves to be an unlikely but effective ally to Seo-hyun’s Mija. I don’t know whether it’s Dano himself or a character choice that he repeats, but there is an air of smugness in many of his roles that I often find unappealing. As eco-warrior Jay, though, this air of smarminess and seriousness works well against the vibrant eccentricity of the rest of the film.
As Dr. Johnny Wilcox, Jake Gyllenhaal gives a performance that seems to have divided critics right down the middle. Whilst some have praised his over the top characterisation of a crazed zoologist losing touch with reality, I have to say that I found his presence to be grating. It’s always a bad thing when a character could be completely removed from a narrative without doing any damage whatsoever to the plot, and this is certainly the case with Dr. Wilcox. It is certainly the most unhinged and extravagant I have ever seen Gyllenhaal be, but I have to say his role and the way in which he executed it are absolutely the most unenjoyable in the picture.
Overall, despite one particular character/performance misstep and a second half that lags every so slightly compared the first, Okja feels like a total breathe of fresh air. It’s a story that will touch your heart and work to break it, but don’t dismiss it as just another manipulative animal tear jerker, it’s so much more than that. You might not want to eat a bacon sandwich for the rest of your life, and you’ll definitely want to go and hug your pet for the next four hours, but the experience is worth it.