Tuesday, July 4, 2017

'Okja' review

You can argue their merits as a distributor, but I don't think anyone can fault Bong Joon Ho for going to Netflix. In recent months, especially with the controversy at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the debate over whether the streaming giant is helping or hurting the film industry has reached a fever pitch. As Netflix moves to producing more big-budget original content, this fight is only going to grow in intensity. But in the specific case of Bong Joon Ho and Okja, let's look at some context. In 2014, the filmmaker made Snowpiercer, a sci-fi masterpiece that stands as one of the most compelling dystopian visions of the decade so far. But when Harvey Weinstein saw the film, he insisted that Bong make cuts, adding things to make it more palatable to (dumb) American audiences. Shocked by these demands, the director refused. As retaliation, Weinstein dumped the film on video-on-demand, causing it to become a flop at the box office. While Snowpiercer still performed well in international markets, a dispute over the material severely restricted its financial success in the US.

Bong Joon Ho is one of the most original voices working today, and to be quite honest, his eccentric films and wildly creative style represent a serious conflict with the major studios. And this is where Netflix comes in. Okja, Bong's new film that debuted on June 28, is a story about a girl and her pig that also works as a corporate satire and a wacky action thriller. It features some sweet moments, but it also has a healthy dose of salty language and some genuinely disturbing moments of animal torture. No major studio would have touched this film in its current form- except Netflix. Instead of demanding cuts or changes to the material, they allowed Bong to have a budget of $50 million and final cut, giving him total creative control over the project. After a battle with a Hollywood producer that practically destroyed a commercially viable project, this had to be a no-brainer for the director.

Would I have liked to see Okja on the big screen? Of course. Going to the theater is a unique and vital experience, one that I hope continues to thrive for many years. But in a climate where originality is rare and the line between television and film is continually blurred, I'm just glad that something like Okja exists. This is a bizarre, wildly innovative, and downright thrilling piece of work, and it further cements Bong Joon Ho as a master of pop filmmaking. Okja is a tonal juggling act that never veers off course, and its gonzo energy allows for some truly breathtaking setpieces and absolutely unforgettable moments. Simply put, Okja is one of the very best films that 2017 has had to offer thus far, and I've continually revisited it in the days since its Netflix premiere. It's an astonishing vision from start to finish, a wild, delightfully strange ride that is certainly worth taking.

In 2007, the Mirando Corporation comes up with an idea. As the world's population spirals past 7 billion, the need for a sustainable source of food grows greater by the day. As Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) says "We needed a miracle....and then we got one." According to Mirando, a genetically superior superpig was discovered in Chile, and through natural mating processes at a company lab, 26 superpigs were born. In a PR attempt for their new line of delicious products, Mirando sends the 26 pigs around the world to be raised by local farmers as part of the "Best Superpig Competition." Ten years later, Mirando and celebrity zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) will crown the best pig in a celebration in New York City. Mirando wants to put a smiley face on their latest food product, and thanks to Lucy's genius, they're mostly successful.

One of the 26 pigs is named Okja, and she's sent to live with a young girl named Mija (An Seo-Hyun) in the mountains of Korea. Okja and Mija are best friends who do everything together, and they have a deep connection. In the early goings of the film, we see the pair on their daily routine, going on adventures and just doing normal things in the wilderness. But with the competition on the horizon, Mirando comes back around to reclaim Okja. Stunned to learn that her best friend will soon be turned into cheap food, Mija fights back, traveling to Seoul to stop Mirando. Thankfully, she'll have some help along the way- the Animal Liberation Front, led by Jay (Paul Dano), have heard the horror stories of Mirando's practices, and they want to stop them for good. With the superpigs about to go into production, things get crazy, but one thing is certain- Mija will stop at nothing to reunite with her best friend.

Okja does so much, and the fact that it's so consistently successful is a testament to Bong Joon Ho's skill as a filmmaker. It's practically three films in one, with each act melding incongruous tones and genres to great effect. The whole thing really shouldn't work, as it's essentially a nasty parable with a heart of gold that goes to some pretty dark places. It's thoroughly cynical about the state of global corporate politics, and miraculously, it even features a seriously horrifying scene where it's implied that the cuddly CGI lead is forced to breed in a Mirando lab. If anybody thought that making a "kids" movie would cause Bong to lose some of his edge, Okja shoots that idea down almost immediately. This is an almost gleefully vicious movie at times, and should any parents accidentally press the play button hoping for a great story about a girl and her superpig, they'll probably be in a state of shock.

But what makes Okja really work is Bong's devotion to energy, showmanship, and sheer creative force. When it needs to slow down and get you to care about the characters, Okja does that with ease- the first act almost entirely consists of everyday interactions between the titular character and Mija. But when it's time to crank up the action, Bong takes it to a level of manic insanity that is so delightfully enjoyable on just about every level. Just like the contained railway thrills of Snowpiercer, Okja exists in its own universe, where Bong creates the rules and everyone else is just along for the ride. It's a world where pretty much anything goes, and it's a blend of dark realism and delicious sci-fi fantasy that works so well.

And of course, Bong has a top-notch cast to help bring his vision to life. Every actor hits the nail on the head, doing exactly what their character needs without missing a beat. The performances range from surprisingly emotional to absurdly over-the-top, but the inconsistencies fit in with the world that Bong has created with Okja. At the center of the film's tragic emotional core is An Seo Hyun, who plays the determined farmer girl who will do anything to bring back her beloved best friend. She does an absolutely incredible job working alongside a completely CGI creation, who practically becomes the star of the movie in her own right. Repeat viewings have solidified just how strong of a character Okja is- you can see so much in her eyes and from her interactions with Mija. Okja exists mainly as a plot device, but the empathy for the character really comes through in every scene.

Leading the adult cast is Tilda Swinton, following up her role in Snowpiercer with a dual performance that is both preposterous and highly entertaining. With her performances as Lucy and Nancy Mirando, Swinton conveys both sides of the capitalist machine- the fun, human side (Lucy) and the cold, heartless core (Nancy). Swinton's theatrics are somehow overshadowed by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is practically on another planet as Johnny Wilcox, the drunken zoologist who doubles as "the face of the Mirando corporation." Gyllenhaal is hamming it up here, and it's so fun to watch. On the heroic side of the cast, Paul Dano practically exudes cool as Jay, the leader of a merry band of punk activists. Dano initially seems a bit untrustworthy, but Jay is a man of principles, and he becomes one of the best characters in the story. I pretty much love the entire ALF crew- Lily Collins, Steven Yeun, Devon Bostick, and Daniel Henshall are all really tremendous.

But even beyond all of the performances and directorial majesty from Bong, Okja is just an incredibly well-made film, certainly the most impressive Netflix production yet. The music by Jaeil Jung is so integral to the entire flow of the movie, capturing the various tones and alternating between a quietly whimsical vibe and thrillingly upbeat and jazzy sounds. The cinematography by Woody Allen and James Gray favorite Darius Khondji is tremendous, capturing the scope and grandeur of the action, while also creating a lush vision of the Korean countryside. Okja is a film that feels big and energetic, but it's also intimate and controlled. Each action scene unfolds with a grace and almost childlike sense of fun, and yet Bong never loses focus of what he's trying to say.

While it's sad that this epic blockbuster will never widely play on the big screen, there is a small upside to its Netflix release- you can immediately watch it as many times as you want. I've already seen Okja three times, and each time I've been more and more impressed by its ambition and execution. Bong Joon Ho is a filmmaker with no shortage of big ideas, but he can pull them off without ever sacrificing storytelling cohesion or entertainment value. Okja has some moments that are truly unforgettable, and it's an endlessly original vision that is so thoroughly enjoyable to watch. It's another triumph from a director who has solidified himself as a kind of cinematic mad scientist, a creative genius who can take anything and turn it into something great.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                                 (9/10)

Images courtesy of Netflix

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