Those as deeply invested in Netflix as me (namely, other recent graduates struggling to adapt to the real world) will have also noticed a recent surge in the number and quality of original films and TV shows released by the company. Working together with a mix of highly-esteemed directors, Netflix has raised the stakes and begun to shift its public image. Okja is no exception; tongues have been wagging since Netflix succeeded in securing critically-acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho for the film. As a visually-striking film with a crystal-clear message, there is absolutely nothing run-of-the-mill about Okja.
Okja revolves around two central characters: a genetically modified, so-called “super-pig” named Okja, and his best friend, the fiercely passionate Mija (a relationship so powerfully nostalgic of playground friendships long-lost). However, before meeting our two protagonists, the audience is first exposed to Okja’s creator – and the cruel villain of the film – the CEO of the dastardly Mirando Corporation, Lucy Mirando (played by Tilda Swinton). A young entrepreneur desperately trying to rebrand GM farming in a world stricken by poverty and starvation, Lucy’s diabolical master plan is public-relations-based, and centres around farmers across the globe competing to rear the healthiest super-pig. Launching straight into the satirical condemnation of both giant corporations and their consumers, it doesn’t take long to decipher the take home message of the opening scenes as being “Capitalism is Bad” (with any sense of subtlety seemingly dismissed by Bong).
However, after persevering through to meeting Mija – Okja’s quiet, yet strong-willed accomplice played by Ahn Seo Hyun – my initial scepticism quickly dissipated. A decade later, we saw Mija brazenly defending her best friend, regardless of their difference in species. Nothing, it appeared, was going to stop Mija from her kamikaze mission to save Okja from his inevitable, slaughterhouse fate, as she follows him from her home in South Korea to the bright lights of New York City. It was refreshing to see a young, female character with a personality that extended beyond ‘cutesy’ and ‘naïve’. Although often over-ambitious in her plans, her resilience and heart saw her through to the end of the film. Her introversion distinguished her from the usual trope of the protagonist, but laid the foundation for a number of subtle complexities in personality that became evident as the plot progressed.
…the juxtaposition of the surreal and fantastical with the relevant and truthful struck me when I was least expecting it
The two-hour long duration of the film was initially daunting. The caricatured acting and in-your-face graphics of the first few scenes were vastly different to the gentle, romantic cinematography that I usually watch; I quickly became sceptical as to whether the entire film was going to be a medley of bangs, flashes, and bizarre impressions (Jake Gyllenhaal – I’m looking at you). However, the often over-the-top characters were paired with beautifully vulnerable scenes, revealing a number of underlying complexities that could easily be missed beneath the theatrics of the film. Although infrequent, the juxtaposition of the surreal and fantastical with the relevant and truthful struck me when I was least expecting it; as such, I found myself with teary eyes having being cackling at an absurd quip made moments earlier. These dichotomies continue throughout the duration of the film – a serious social commentary develops as the film progresses, within this surreal (and, quite frankly, utterly bonkers) world created by Bong.
The film’s stunning cinematography is also worth noting in itself – even if you find yourself losing interest in the plot (don’t worry – you won’t), the composition of each still is aesthetically pleasing enough to recapture your attention. From the picturesque tranquility of the South Korean mountains, to the clinically spotless offices of the Mirando Corporation, a snapshot of any moment would likely be worthy of being framed and hung up on your living room wall.
Okja premieres on Netflix on June 28th, and is definitely worth a watch. The bold and bizarre directorial choices of Bong Joon-Ho aren’t for the faint-hearted, nor will they be universally enjoyed – think the meticulous detail and sharp humour of Wes Anderson, boosted by a cocktail of recreational drugs. Nonetheless, his brilliance starts to shine through as the plot unravels, and you find yourself becoming better acquainted with the characters. Stick with it, and find yourself being hit by Bong’s powerful and important message when you’re least expecting it (or even just to find out whether there’s a happy ending).
Image: Jae Hyuk Lee / Netflix