Netflix' Original movie, Okja, is something of a curioso. While the promo and trailer alluded to a story of a South Korean girl saving a magical half-hippo-half-pig from the clutches of evil, the end result is something as heart warming as it is heart wrenching.
Joon-ho Bong is no stranger to satire. His last film, Snowpiercer, adapted a graphic novel to examine the class system. Its mix of Sci-Fi, nuclear winter and protein bars to keep the lower class strong enough to work was like a diesel fuelled Soylent Green. While it did run out of steam for the finale, the reflection it held up to society was crystal clear. Okja, by comparison, is a little more grounded. Okja is one of the genetically engineered "superpigs" created by the Mirando Corporation. As part of a marketing stunt and to hide their genetic origins, they are sent around the world to be reared in accordance to the farming techniques of that region. The best, happiest and healthiest will win and be brought back to NY, where they will be reared to create even more happy and healthy meat. While, the most "chill" of Netflix viewers will quickly gather that something is not as it seems, there's a bright and original way to set up the required exposition in the opening moments. Joon-ho Bong presents Tilda Swinton as Corporate CEO. Her inauspicious presentation offers a transparent promise of integrity and caring for the environment. It's just the kind of hogwash advertising has fed us for years.
It isn't long before we meet Mija and her companion. Okja herself is a brilliant creation. Not only convincing, but the truly subtle character Okja brings a reality to the moments our two friends share. There's no question of the shared bond as the two cavort in the South Korean wilderness. From pooping fish, to a daring cliff rescue, there's a very simple magic that's easy to get swept up in. So strong is the spell, that when Wildlife personality, Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal), turns up at Mija's mountain top home to whisk Okja away, the separation is tougher on the feels than you'd expect.
Okja does take a long hard look at the harmful ethics of greedy dishonest and deceptive corporations, but it's also strikingly relevant when it comes to the well-meaning activists and just how ineffective they can be when going up against the resources of global giants. Paul Dano and his band of animal-loving do-gooders present both hope and futility. There's a daring escape attempt full of peril, gaffs and tragedy. Dano and co help save Okja and then deliver her right back into jeopardy again, just to serve their "fight". What follows leads to some truly horrendous results for Okja and an understandable loss of "humanity".
While Bong's signature tonal shifts are all present, they've never been quite so correct. In his previous output the director's penchant for following moments of levity with bleakness have left audiences a little numb and confused. Here Bong is careful to handle the moments with a little more sensitivity. He still juxtaposes emotions, but they serve to contrast one another and not derail. The result is something deeply affecting, but not manipulative.
4* - Mija's Dragon