By Jim Sabataso
While Netflix has secured its reputation as a powerhouse of original TV programming, it hasn’t offered up much in the way of feature-length films. The streaming giant aims to change that with “Okja,” a compelling, imaginative and dark film from “Snowpiercer” director Bong Joon-ho.
With “Snowpiercer,” Bong presented a far-off dystopia where the world’s remaining population lived on a train that circled a frozen-over planet Earth. Here he presents a more recognizable near future, which, despite its dark edges, offers a glimmer of hopefulness — small as it may be.
“Okja” tells the story of a Monsanto-like corporation called Mirando, which, in an attempt to polish its image, introduces the world to a genetically modified pig it hopes will become a new, more efficient food source. However, behind the slick PR campaign and greenwashing lies a more sinister truth, which challenges the audience to question how much they want to know about where their food comes from.
The corporation is represented by heiress and newly minted CEO Lucy Mirando, played with gusto by Tilda Swinton. Swinton goes big as Lucy, a manic personality with a flare for showmanship. But despite the fronting, Lucy is a fragile and frightened soul — something Swinton implies in small moments throughout.
At her side is Giancarlo Esposito’s taciturn Frank Dawson, the power behind the throne, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Johnny Wilcox, a deranged, self-loathing Steve Irwin analogue.
Mirando’s plans are thrown into chaos when a young girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) absconds with Okja, a super pig she and her grandfather were raising in rural South Korea. The bond between Mija and Okja is tender and sweet. The hippopotamus-sized Okja is a gentle giant with the temperament of a golden retriever. We also get the sense that Okja’s species is capable of great intelligence, which makes their ultimate fate as food all the more devastating.
Seo-Hyun Ahn does excellent work making her relationship with Okja feel real — no small feat given she is acting opposite a CGI effect. Her performance was of a kind with Dafne Keen from “Logan;” both young actors excel at conveying a great deal of emotion nonverbally, and in Seo-Hyun’s case, across a language barrier.
Aiding and complicating Mija’s mission is a group of animal-rights activists lead by Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead”). While their characters are somewhat cliché in their representation of activists, both actors manage to bring intermittent depth to the roles.
The film is gorgeously shot, as it shifts settings from lush forests to cold cityscapes to grim livestock processing facilities and feedlots. Through it all, director Bong manages to frame scenes in interesting ways and depict action sequences naturalistically. These characters are not superheroes, and scenes where heroics are necessary make that clear — characters look twice before they leap and get hurt when they fall down.
“Okja” is a story that is both small and large. The relationship between Okja and Mija is at the heart of the film — and it plays those heartstrings skillfully. Pulling back, however, the film is a slyly political indictment of the future of global food systems. In the face of food shortages caused by climate change and political turmoil, a creature like Okja is not that farfetched.
Like “Snowpiercer,” there is a vein of fatalism running throughout the film. The extraordinary efforts of one person are not enough to change the world — especially in the face of the roaring engine of capitalism. Here the film pushes us the audience to contemplate how much we want to know about how the food we eat gets to our plate, and how much suffering we are willing to inflict on other living things to get it there. After spending two hours with Okja, it’s unlikely those questions will sit as easily as they did before.
CHECK IT OUT
“Okja” is now streaming on Netflix.