Have you ever just fallen in love with a film?
Such was the case for me with Okja, the latest film from writer/director Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer), launching on Netflix on June 28th after a mixed reception at Cannes and a limited fest run found it landing within Netflix's growing collection of original films.
Netflix seems, at first, an odd distributor for the visually stunning and magnificently brought to life Okja, though perhaps in this day and age we can trust that home video has improved enough to help people realize just what a wonderful creation is this gem of a film.
Bong Joon Ho co-writes the film with British author/journalist Jon Ronson, a partnership that perfectly weaves together the director's marvelous creature sensibilities, as previously experienced in The Host, with Ronson's ability to convey a Brit-like humor and wit throughout the film that is intelligent, sensitive and, at times, quite darkly hilarious.
Okja most brings to mind Spielberg's recent The BFG, though Okja is more grounded in the real world and less exclusively devoted to the fantastic nature of it all. In fact, Okja is surprisingly down to earth.
Okja is the Korean director's most accessible film to global audiences to date, a near masterpiece that bends and twists genres and celebrates childhood even when it goes into some rather dark places along its still consistently childlike adventures.
The film centers around Mija (a flawless An Seo Hyun), an orphan living with her grandfather whose only childhood friend has been Okja, a super piglet dropped off at her grandfather's farm when she was four-years-old by the mysterious Mirando Corporation, a behemoth using the kind gesture as a promotional marketing campaign concocted by Mirando's CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), to soften the company's image. After ten years, the Mirando Corporation is to repossess each of the super piglets they have distributed globally, though the possibility of parting with Okja is a possibility that seems to have either forgotten or never fully understood. When the company's spokesperson, celebrity zoologist Dr. Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal), shows up at the farm to reclaim what is, in fact, Mirando's, it's a scene that's nearly as devastating to the audience as it is to the young, misunderstanding Mija.
Not surprisingly, Mija leaves the farm in an effort to rescue Okja, an adventure that finds her sort of alongside ALF, the Animal Liberation Front, a radical animal rights group headed by the militantly vegetarian and passionately pacifist Jay (Paul Dano), whose scenes are among the film's best from beginning to end.
It would be a pity to tell you much more about what unfolds in Okja since you'll be able to see it for yourself in a couple days time, but you can suffice it to say that the delightful, winning and deliriously wonderful story that unfolds is part E.T., part Bong Joon Ho, part Swiss Army Man (Seriously!), and ultimately one of the year's most pleasant cinematic surprises.
An Seo Hyun gives a revelatory performance as the young Mija, embodying her innocence and sense of wonder with a childlike strength that is simply mesmerizing. From an opening scene where an endangered Mija is creatively rescued by Okja to a tear-inducing scene where Okja nearly inadvertently injurces Mija, the relationship between Mija and Okja is not just believable but absolutely immersive.
Tilda Swinton, who seems to have nothing she can't do, starts off portraying Mirando with a broad sense of villainy before doing what Swinton always does and humanizing her in rich and magnificent ways with quirks and insecurities and a matter-of-factness that somehow makes her more compelling. Working alongside Giancarlo Esposito and Shirley Henderson, Swinton picks up the vibe of the film and adds a sort of childlike twinkle to Mirando's mischief.
As Jay, Paul Dano gives Okja a good amount of its emotional depth with a performance that is remarkably rich and emotionally honest and, yeah, even satirically dysfunctional in portraying all those quirks and foibles so often found in organizations that mean to do well but sabotage themselves and others along the way. It's a truly stand-out performance for Dano, whose ability to connect with his young child co-star, with whom he shares several scenes, is endearing at a cellular level.
If there's a miss in the film it's likely with Gyllenhaal, though truthfully I can't quite decide for myself if it's an actual miss or not. Gyllenhaal's Dr. Johnny is essentially a broadly realized buffoon, an insecure twit whose likable persona is clearly manipulated by his corporate handlers and whose own presence as either good or bad is never quite clear. Gyllenhaal's tone is wildly different from every other performance in the film, a wild chasm that is at times jarring and disrupting and weird yet, somehow, it still seems to fit within the film's absurd realism.
Darius Khondji's lensing is lush and immersive, capturing both the wondrous beauty of Mija's homeland and the chaotic disorganization of the big city. The film's CG is flawless, Okja as a creature so completely lovely that you could be forgiven for forgetting you're watching a CG-created creature.
Okja is truly a gem of a film, one of those rare films that, with one scene being a possible exception, balances both its adult and children's worlds with equal conviction and precision. Magically immersive and radiating childlike wonder and imagination, Okja is a Netflix original film you will definitely want to see for yourself.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic