After a number of stumbles (primary being signing Adam Sandler), Netflix finally seems to be finding their groove in their original movies.
Okja (2017) is a black dramedy written and directed by Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, The Host). It stars Seo-Hyn Ahn as Mija, a young girl living in rural Korea with a giant pig-dog creature called Okja as her best friend. But when the multi-national corporation Mirando, headed by the enigmatic Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), comes for the creature Mija takes drastic actions to save the gentle creature she grew up with.
This film is an awesome get for Netflix. Not only does it have a fantastic and increasingly prominent director at the helm in Bong Joon Ho, it also sports an incredibly impressive cast and big success on the film festival circuit. It yet again solidifies Netflix’s attempt to break into film-making the same way its succeeded with TV. And this film, coupled with the other gloriously unconventional Netflix movie I’ve seen this year I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, its a strong indicator of quality to come.
That being said, this film is not for everyone. Anyone whose seen Ho’s previous film The Host will know this director has a tendency to merge and dilute comedic and dramatic tones in a way that makes a movie feel wholly unique and Okja is incredibly similar in that way. There are moments of intense darkness coupled with extremely bizarre and satirical comedy that gives the film some serious tonal inconsistencies at times, but thankfully Ho manages to keep a much stronger grip this time around than he managed on The Host. And when Okja hits, it hits hard. The writing here is top-notch, managing to mix extremely bizarre characters and situations with the absurd in a way that makes you laugh without losing sight of the drama behind the movie. This is a film that is going to be confronting for many thanks to its themes of meat production and animal rights, and Ho refuses to shy away from harsh realities. The third act in particular may be too rough for some audiences to handle – which of course is the point. It ends the film with a final, booming exclamation point that really hits its message home hard.
As for the performances, there’s nary a weak one to go around. Seo-Hyun Ahn is a genuine surprise with how good she is acting next to a completely CGI animal, both being incredibly convincing that the creature is actually there in the scene, as well as them having an intensely intimate bond. You could even describe Okja as a character completely on his own due to how good the CGI and animation is at bringing the gentle giant to life. His design is also incredibly distinct while also feeling similar enough to real animals so as not to appear too alien. Back to the humans and Tilda Swinton is also worth a mention, as I’ve yet to see her deliver a bad performance. Here she’s delightfully over the top in the best way possible, acting unhinged and theatrical every time she’s on screen. Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano round off the cast as well, both playing unusual caricatures in very different but impacting ways.
Okja may not hit the heights of Ho’s previous film Snowpiercer, but its still an incredibly solid message movie. Apart from the tonal shifts that many viewers may find jarring, everything from the CGI effects to the performances to some incredibly powerful themes, Okja may be the best Netflix movie I’ve thus seen, and hopefully it indicates plenty more quality films to come.
General Audiences: Recommended
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended
Arthousers: Highly Recommended