Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Writer: Bong Joon Ho & Jon Ronson
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Seo-Hyun Ahn
Is Okja Any Good?
On the face of it, this movie should be everything you want from Netflix’s stride into the world of cinema, as they begin producing feature films. The plot focuses around ideas of consumerism and capitalism, with a focus on the food and farming industry, that feels unique enough that it is difficult to list any films that have a similar subject matters. It is directed by an innovative Korean filmmaker and has a cast featuring big name heavyweights such as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton, who are given the room to create very individual characters.
Despite all this though, it can’t help but feel quite disappointing. Many of the more action packed moments simply are not thrilling enough, while the more heart-felt moments are not tear-jerking enough. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a manic performance that could be career defining, but instead comes off a bit too kookily grating, while Swinton reminds us that she’s done similar roles in better films.
It is certainly better to see a good hearted film occasionally falter, than a film that doesn’t even try, and it is undeniable that Okja is still a unique film with a good heart and on top of that Seo-Hyun Ahn holds her own starring alongside heavyweights. But as much as you may want to love this film, it just ends up feeling merely okay. Bong Joon-Ho has stated that he was given complete creative control by Netflix, which is a wonderful thing to allow filmmakers to experiment and do something new, but it is easy to wonder whether a more controlling studio could have refined this into something more.
"Being a television presenter can be stressful. You always have to be on. Now that I’m the face of the Mirando corporation."
Jake Gyllenhaal in Okja
Jake Gyllenhaal goes all out on his performance of Johnny Wilcox and it is certainly divisive. He’s an actor who is not afraid to take risks and more than often they pay off. His character in Okja is manic, over the top and intense. Where Gyllenhaal usual manages to shine in these kinds of roles it's hard not to find him rather grating.
There are moments where he is brilliant however. There is a sense that his character, once a big star, now a fading has been, is massively performative himself, trying to hang onto a sense of who he wants to continue to be. Occasionally this cracks and a subtle sense of tragedy is found. It all feels a bit Missing Richard Simmonds. However, that said, for the most part it is just too much and makes a rather annoying character who has moments of being too over the top or too villainous.
The Hippo-Sized Super-Pig Animal in Okja
The animal in Okja is termed a super-pig. A genetically modified six-ton animal designed to solve world hunger by a slick global corporation. The super-pig created by director Bong Joon-ho and VFX supervisor Erik De Boer for the film is one of the film’s best parts. They do not merely make Okja an item in the plot, but a character in himself. The creature is in fact not very pig-like, looking more like a hippo crossed with a manatee, yet acts and moves more like a gigantic puppy, while having the facial expressions of a human. This helps create an animal that is lovable enough that the audience can fall in love with it and care about what happens to it. It may feel like a cheap trick, but without it, the whole film would fall flat.
It is familiar and not alien, using elements of animals and peoples we recognise. It is also necessarily massive as any genetically modified farm animal would need to be to revolutionise the meat industry. Despite this it looks entirely placid and non-confrontational. This is most important, so that as soon as we see it with human expressions, we also see it as an innocent human essentially condemned to death. As a giant animal, there was no full puppets made. Instead actors interacted with wire frames and rough head shapes and everything else was added in as CGI.
Okja Booed at Cannes Controversy
Although Okja was reportedly booed at Cannes, by the end, it did receive a standing ovation. The critics were in fact, not booing the film itself, but the Netflix title card as it came up. Added to this, the first ten minutes of the film were projected in the wrong aspect ratio, leading to more disgruntled audience members and the movie needing to be started again from the beginning. Despite many newspapers reporting a huge hatred for Okja, this was not the only time this happened, as the Amazon title card for Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck was also booed.
This follows a long debate between Netflix, the Cannes Film Festival and the National Federation of French Cinemas, about whether the streaming service somehow devalues the content. With most of the movie industry centred around theatrical releases, it is unsurprising that no matter what Netflix do, they will meet resistance. Okja has not even got a cinema release in France, due to the current laws there that films be kept off streaming platforms for 36 months after their theatrical release.
It was with this announcement that Cannes decided that only films with a French theatrical release next year would be able to compete in order to “support to the traditional mode of exhibition of cinema in France and in the world.” . With what essentially seems to amount to war between Netflix and the rest of the film industry, it is easy to feel like the industry itself are just grumbling luddites, refusing to accept the challenge of modernity. That all said, with a warm critical reaction, Netflix came out on top this time.
Okja’s ‘Happy’ Ending & Post-Credits Sequence Explained
Jay and the ALF try to liberate Okja from the Mirando parade, but beaten and blinded Okja tries to attack Mija, but eventually realises it is her, as Lucy’s sister, Nancy, returns and takes control and arrest the members of the ALF. Only just escaping, Jay and K take Mija to the slaughterhouse where Okja has been taken. Nancy arrives when Mija is trying to petition for Okja’s release and she eventually agrees in return for the golden pig. As they are leaving a pair of super-pigs pushed their offspring through the fence and Okja hides it in its mouth. They return to the countryside to live out their life with the new piglet. There is a post credits sequence where Jay is released and teams up with the rest of the ALF to head to another Mirando event. As they gear up for an attack, the film ends.
It may not be a happy ending of Disney proportions, but it certainly isn’t sad. Mija is back in the countryside she loves, with both Okja and a new young super-pig. Not only that but the ALF are still ready to continue the resistance. That said, things are far from ideal. Mirando is still prosperous and although Okja is safe, the mass-slaughter plant continue to kill many others like him. This ending seems to act as Bong Joon-Ho’s call to action. It is a reflection of the state of the power of mass corporations as well as society’s intense farming and consumption of animals, often out of the sight of those eventually eating it. It is a statement that although individual actions are helping, one person’s actions are not going to change the world, but many individuals could.
"Fuck off! We're extremely proud of our achievements. We're very hardworking business-people. We do deals, and these are the deals we do. This is the tenderloin for the sophisticated restaurants."
Okja Certificate & Age Rating
Despite featuring a big and lovable creature at its centre, don’t be fooled into thinking that Okja is another My Neighbour Totoro. The film is not designed as family film and received a 15 age rating in the UK and a TV-MA rating in the US. That said, it is far from being on the heavier end of the spectrum of films with mature certificates. Much of the ratings are likely to come from the repeated swearing rather than the content itself. Perhaps if this was given a cinematic release, rather than one on Netflix, then it would’ve been cut down more to scrape a 12 or 12A certificate, however as an on-demand release there’s likely less pressure to ensure the maximum number of people can make it into the cinema.
There are many dark elements, especially when it comes to the torturing and general mistreatment of animals, however they are perhaps not so intense, that those a bit younger than 15 could still watch the film and enjoy it. After all, this film offers a interesting, yet not overly complex portrayal of its ideas, which like many other young adult films, can allow younger audience members to dissect important issues, without it ever being too patronising.
Veganism, Vegetarianism & GMOs in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja
Following its release on Netflix, there has been a wide range of reports of people becoming vegetarian or vegan after watching Okja. How many of these are actually true, or how many have just been taken from tweets of people having an instant visceral reaction and a joke about it, is hard to tell. But it is certainly true that Okja is a film designed to make people think about the choices as consumers and an industry built around only providing more and more excess food, whether by intensive farming or GMOs. Director Bong Joon-ho and producer Dooho Choi even went to a slaughterhouse in Colorado while researching it and subsequently became vegans because of it. This was only limited to a three month period however, something which Bong Joon-ho blames on his return to Korea and the overwhelming reliance the country has to BBQ meat. Since then however he has been attempting to live as a pescetarian.
It is interesting however that this film has been made by someone who is not militantly anti-meat. In fact, some of the ALF’s extreme and often preachy veganism is poked fun at, while Mija’s favourite food is a chicken based dish. It perhaps gives a far more balanced argument and doesn’t try to dictate lifestyle choices, but merely opens up the conversation about them. Compared to more eye-opening documentaries such as Cowspiracy, this is unlikely to have as much as a long term lasting effect on levels of veganism, but it is certainly a reflection of shifting priorities in modern society.
"I was visualising ways of turning the most hated agrichemical company in the world, into the most likeable miracle pig rearing company."
Hillary Clinton & Barack Obama Scene in Okja
The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and their security team pop-up in one scene of Okja. Well, not exactly them, but most certainly a direct reference to them. As the Mirando team gather round in a board room to watch a PR nightmare play out, they exactly mirror the famous picture taken by official White House photographer Pete Souza of the White House Situation Room as the President and his advisors watch a live feed of Osama Bin-Laden’s assassination.
This is no coincidence either. Tilda Swinton holds her hand up to her mouth, identically to how Hillary Clinton did, while Jennifer, the only other woman in the room, peers round here colleagues shoulders, mirroring Director for Terrorism Audrey Tomason, while the rest of the men reflect the standing or sitting positions of the reflected photograph.
What Bong Joon-ho intended by this is hard to know. The Souza photograph is certainly iconic and it may merely be that he wanted to reflect the intensity of the well known photograph in the corporate environment, giving Mirando’s PR operations state-like importance. It could also be a commentary on the White House’s foreign policy, dealing with it at arms length in a heavy-handed way like Lucy Mirando. Whatever it is, however, it is certainly an Easter Egg that only the very eagle-eyed would have spotted.