Originally published June 30th, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
Here it is, ladies and gentlemen; the film that most of us only had to wait one more month for.
It feels strange calling Bong Joon-ho’s Okja a controversial picture when the controversy had nothing to do with the film’s content, but rather the name attached to its distribution. The film’s premiere at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival was a bit of a mixed bag to say the least. Despite a four-minute standing ovation upon the film’s conclusion, the Netflix logo generated its fair share of jeers, and the opening scenes weren’t presented in the correct aspect ratio. Despite the positive reception for the film itself, the biggest headline coming out of the festival was arguably the fiery debate over whether or not films distributed solely by streaming services, like Netflix, ought to be allowed exhibition at major festivals.
The results? A once-in-a-lifetime sparring match between Will Smith – surely defending his own Netflix original, Bright – and Pedro Almodóvar, and the outcry among French exhibitors being such that from 2018 going forward, Cannes has decided that all films looking for a Competition slot must have a French theatrical release.
It just seems a shame that such furor would all but briefly overshadow the quality of Bong’s film, which is destined for its own slot on many critics’ end of the year “Best Of” lists. The film is as if E.T. were instead written by “The Jungle” author Upton Sinclair – yes, I know criticisms of the meatpacking industry weren’t his real intentions – wearing its emotional heart on its sleeve amidst some engaging, if not always satisfyingly realized satire. It’s a thrilling, heartfelt adventure that will remind many of some of the best child-led sci-fi, and is yet grounded in an uncompromising realism that will have you thinking, but not always about what you expect.
The film’s two opening scenes are crucial in depicting the philosophical dichotomy that is the crux of its conflict. The film opens in 2007, when Lucy Mirando, played by the incomparable Tilda Swinton, introduces herself as the new face of the Mirando Corporation, succeeding her infamous father. Seeking to rebrand the company as eco-friendly, she announces the company’s long-term plans for breeding a new kind of ‘superpig,’ engaging in typical assembly line corporate rhetoric and sound bites to satisfy the onlooking press. 10 years later, we see lead protagonist Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) giddily playing in the South Korean forest with her beloved superpig, Okja.
Subtly in this beginning, though more explicitly as the narrative progresses, the film introduces its umbrella theme of disconnection, in this case the disconnect felt between the common person and industry, and the cold distance felt by individuals towards a company’s impersonal appearance. This later gets expanded upon in the disconnect felt between what a person says and how they actually feel, particularly present in Swinton’s Lucy Mirando, as well as the dangers of miscommunication and the use of empty rhetoric from both sides – the Mirando Corporation and its polar opposite, the ‘non-violent’ Animal Liberation Front.
It’s a thought-provoking direction to take considering Bong and co-screenwriter Jon Ronson could have taken the easy route in simply ‘exposing’ the cruelties against animals committed by large companies under the masquerade of being environmentally friendly, instead making incisive, sharp-witted arguments about how we use language for our own selfish benefits. Perhaps that makes the film’s characterization and depiction of the Animal Liberation Front and its smooth-talking, manipulative leader Jay (Paul Dano) unfulfilling, but it does open the door for a more recognizable evil to step in and provide a simultaneously soul-crushing, yet hopeful ending that feels unflinchingly realistic.
As heartwarming as certain scenes and set-pieces are, the film is often funny, well-paced, beautifully shot and features some strong, eccentric yet-layered performances from much of its main cast. Swinton is fantastic in her double role as both Lucy and Nancy Mirando, Dano is confidently robotic as Jay, and boy, is Jake Gyllenhaal something else as the wild Steve Irwin caricature Dr. Johnny Wilcox. These protagonists are at once parodies and microcosms of the industries they inhabit and represent, but perhaps our current sociopolitical reality leads us to believe that these figures could just as easily exist in our own world.
Forget the politics, forget the controversy – hell, maybe you already have – because Okja is a fun, intelligent if sometimes uneven satire sure to elicit warms smiles and perhaps a few tears. It and this past Wednesday’s Baby Driver are the next films you and your friends will discuss and debate, at least until everyone starts doing the same for whether or not a Spider-Man movie was actually done right.