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The Many Delights of "Okja"

Chris here. Have you caught up to Okja on Netflix yet, readers?

The Cannes competition title arrived on the streaming platform this week (and a tiny sampling of theatres), becoming one of its boldest and best pieces of original programming. Bong Joon-ho's satire of the factory farming industry and consumer culture is a stunning blend of tones and ideas, from absurd comedy to tense thriller to heartwarming fable. At its heart, it is truly about a girl and her pet.

Okja is quite a feast for audiences, bursting with delights both unexpected and well-anticipated. The film has naturally proven somewhat divisive already, as anything so go-for-broke typically can be. But let's grant some hosannas for a film of many high points...

Diversity, Diversity, Diversity
See, Hollywood, it is simply not so difficult to have diversity in your casting. Our hero is a young Korean girl, and there are more than white faces in both the nefarious Mirando Corporation and the rebellious Animal Liberation Front. This broad spectrum of casting helps reinforce the film’s complex global themes in a way you wish more films would match.

Your sci-fi satire need not be so dark
Haven’t we all grown tired of brooding science fiction dystopia tales, especially when we are living in one? Even Bong Joon-ho himself fell somewhat prey to it with Snowpiercer. Somehow Okja manages to be uplifting despite being about how awful our world has become, a sunnily disposed film that still doesn’t shy away from atrocity.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s gonzo host
This is already a divisive performance for all of its wacko mannerisms and I’m certainly within the “pro” camp on what Gyllenhaal is doing here (that squeaky voice!), though I would offer that it doesn’t help his case that the movie itself treats him like a distraction. While some of his more out there work like and Nightcrawler this has felt more singular, here he proves game to submit to a director’s vision.

Endlessly Great Set Design
The film is bursting at every corner of its globe-trotting aesthetic with lush locales, chilly capitalism, and grungy industrialism. Miraculously the disparate tones and textures are make for a cohesive whole under Ha-jun Lee and Kevin Thompson’s art direction, and always a vessel for the film’s satire. Let’s get our own art direction observer Daniel Walber on this, stat.

Tilda Twins
Any film where you get one Tilda Swinton is already an embarrassment of riches, but a symphonic twosome? Here she gets to play both sides of a capitalistic coin - unfeeling overlord and overzealous marketing maven - for what we knew would be another treat. Which of her past roles would you most want to see its opposing twin?

“Translations Are Sacred”
As covered brilliantly by Vice and Vulture, the film uses language and cultural disparities to further the plot. One of the things that makes Joon-ho’s worlds so vast and intriguing is that he has an eye on the entire world and not filtered through the lens of any one nation or locale. Part of what makes Okja so intellectually wide is that it can hold more global ideas in its mind at once than its anti-meat industry polemic.

Okja, herself
A major shout out to the creature design here, for our massive bovine pal looks original and imaginative, and often quite real. Rather than cutesifying her to adorable effect, Okja looks and acts like an animal and not the cartoon character you might expect from its tender narrative. And she still remains pretty cuddly... poop and farts aside.

It’s incredibly difficult to imagine this film having the scale, polish, and guts that it does without the kind of financial backing that the streaming service was able to provide. Thankfully, Netflix does exist so that Okja can exist exactly as it does without compromise, even if it only blurs the lines between cinema and television. However, everyone who put themselves on the pro-Netflix side of the often reductive debate: you damn well better watch things like Okja to prove your thesis.

New star Ahn Seo-hyun
Wonder Woman isn’t the only kick-ass female hero we get this summer: Seo-hyun’s Mija is by turns caring and defiant, brave beyond her years but purely still a child. The young actress is formiddable in Mija’s determination and dryly funny when she is unimpressed by truly any adult’s posturing. Already she could own an action franchise with the best of them.

Bong Joon-ho
Whether you love Okja or not, it is impossible to deny that the film is a work of immense creative vision. The auteur has delivered us a satire of vast imagination, something of our times that can heal our times. Is there any other director working in science fiction today with this much originality or mischievous wit or overriding sense of hope? Still with all those creative risks, his deft balance of tones makes this film one bravura piece of filmmaking.

What did you think of Okja?

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Reader Comments (11)

What do I think? I'd make it a priority if it was in a theater near me, but I don't have Netflix, so it may disappear into the ether for me.
I get that Netflix is a problematic-but-valuable resource for non-major-metropolitan cinephiles who now have art house access - but still put your movies on the screens they deserve, please.

July 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I may see it, tonight or tomorow - we're watching World Pride right now, which is happening here in Spain (Madrid exactly) and being aired on national TV, a first time ever! - and I have little doubt it might be as single bit as amazing as "The Host" and "Snowpiercer".

We watched "Colossal" which yesterday was released here, and am I disappointed by how much American reviewers missed the point of this Vigalondo film which is an almost masterpiece? A feminist film that deals with gender violence and plenty of thoughtful themes, including a reflection on the distance between criminal and victims... a film that should be in consideration to multiple awards (it's Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay worthy, and I don't mean just noms) and, as other films like "The Lego Movie", "Stranger by the Lake" or "Snowpiercer" (the three 2014 masterpieces), american film reviewes can't do their job and actually deconstruct and analyze a work of art, and end labelling the films as "cute and funny", "hitchcocknian" and "thrilling" good films what are undisputable masterpieces of filmmaking.

July 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

I do want to see this film as I'm a fan of Bong Joon-Ho but I prefer to see it in the theaters if it was an option. I'm not subscribing some exclusive bullshit streaming service. FUCK NETFLIX.

July 1, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

"Diversity, Diversity, Diversity"

I'll take an issue with this.
When Asian directors go abroad, there's this need of the studio (or the directors themselves, but mostly the studio) to have a large white cast or to cast them for the most important characters, and here you say the minorities outnumber white people, yet they're the ones who look like they were given the most colorful, bigger and interesting roles of the bunch and the ones people are pointing out even if they're divisive (contribuing this way to the relegation of actors of color to the background and stopping them from having their breakout). While the (obvious) answer to this might be the fame of the most recognizable white cast for the promotion, there is a rise of South Korean actors to stardom (they could've written Tilda's character for Kim Min-hee, she is HUGE right now) and watching that poster there is no way (talent aside, both of them great) Paul Dano is more famous than Steven Yeun. Even the terrifically talented Giancarlo Esposito being everywhere on TV right now (and counting with one of the most popular characters from "Breaking Bad" on his resumé) isn't being promoted anywhere more than the trailer. Also (even if this has been said, written and typed countless times, it's not something that will be said enough until the problem disappears) how in the heck are they ever going to prove a minority could be crowd magnet if they don't give them the opportunity? Taylor Kitsch was given chance after chance after chance to lead a movie and when that didn't work at all he got one of the leading roles in season 2 of 2014's most discussed TV show.
While we can point out the positivity of it, I wouldn't call it a "delight" when this movie could've have had an entire South Korean cast or a bare minimun white one.

July 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

Me34 - RT on everything you said. Diversity isn't just a number.

July 1, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

Chris - Yes yes yes to all of this! This was such a good movie! I'll give a special shout-out to Jaiel Jung's score which feels like a big part of why the film feels so light, that zany score during the escape from the Seoul branch is so inspired. And I'm totally with you on Gyllenhaal, I love bonkers he was.

July 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNick T

After watching it: outstanding. Up there with "Colossal", "T2: Trainspotting" and "Get Out" for the Best films of 2017 so far.

July 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

Me34 - I agree with all of your points, even if I think you're talking more marketing (still very important) than the film itself. However, in hindsight I wish I'd used more of that section of my piece to highlight the diversity behind the camera as well

July 2, 2017 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

I saw this on the big screen and still wasn't that taken by it. It was fine. I had major issues like I do with all of his films that aren't MOTHER or MEMORIES OF MURDER. I hate Jake, not just because it was bad, but because it made no sense. He has the squeaky voice off camera, but on camera he is more normal Jake, but then in person he also acts like a dork? I don't get it. I wasn't impressed by Tilda either. Very obvious performance, I felt. Or at least it was written in a very obvious way.

July 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I have immense respect for Bong Joon-ho and I'm happy that someone's giving him the platform and the budget to dive headlong into such an eclectic vision. (If that last sentence seems like a long setup for a but, it is.)

Something is getting lost in tranlation with Bong's English-language films. Both Snowpiercer and Okja lacked the subtlety and sly humor of his other films. The social commentary is gleefully on the nose. The characterizations are cranked up to 11. Even the visuals are self-consciously outré.

There's no doubt that this is intentional but I don't like that Bong seems to be leaning into his own hype as a gonzo director who hopscotches between styles and tones within the same film. Memories of Murder and Mother covered a lot of ground in both respects but they also reflected a cohesive vision in which the humor and off-kilter characters contributed to the whole.

All that said, Bong's films are always worth seeing. But whereas I consider several of his films to be masterpieces or near-masterpieces, his last two are fun but deeply flawed baubles.

July 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterW.J.

I just watched it, and it was batshit crazy. My favorite film of the year by far even though it is a gigantic mess.

July 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

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