At this point, Okja is more than just a movie. To the critics and audience members who booed it at the Cannes Film Festival, furious that Netflix wasn’t giving it a widespread theatrical release, it’s a sign that original filmmaking may be doomed at the multiplexes and will soon migrate permanently to streaming services. To American viewers, it’s a wake-up call that foreign cinema is more than just art-house curios -- it now offers better, more interesting blockbusters than what the Hollywood studios are selling us. To those unfamiliar with director and co-writer Bong Joon-ho, it’s an introduction to a filmmaker who’s like Steven Spielberg with a darker sense of humor. It’s an action movie, a comedy, a coming-of-age tale, an E.T.-like fable about the bond between a child and an unusual creature, a screed against corporate livestock practices. It’s everything.
It’s, frankly, maybe a little too much. Messy and overstuffed, and with about a half-dozen characters who don’t really serve a purpose in the plot, Okja frequently feels like it’s bitten off more than it can chew. While the first half of the movie is a blast, the second half is unable to recapture that rhythm because it gets bogged down with having too many pieces on the board. But even if it isn’t perfect, it’s still bursting with a ton of provocative ideas, memorable characters, and unforgettable sequences; you’ll be thinking about it for days afterward, if only to reflect on how lame and small-minded the average franchise-oriented blockbuster is by comparison.
The story centers on the friendship between Mija, a young girl living in the South Korean countryside with her grandfather, and Okja, a giant pig that’s been genetically engineered by the morally ambiguous Mirando Corporation. After years of raising Okja as part of a highly publicized science project for Mirando, Mija is horrified to discover that her porcine pal is really just a more efficient form of livestock, and that the company have come to collect her to turn her into pork products. Mija sets out to rescue Okja, and along the way, falls in with a quirky group of animal-rights activists who are also planning to free the giant pig -- in their case, to use her to commit a larger act of corporate sabotage that could bring down Mirando.
That’s a lot of plot right there, and that doesn’t even include the machinations within Mirando itself: Tilda Swinton plays both Lucy Mirando, the company’s current CEO (who’s obsessed with spinning the “superpig” project into good PR), and her more ruthless twin sister Nancy (who plans to take over the corporation and focus solely on profits). Giancarlo Esposito plays another corporate suit, and Jake Gyllenhaal is a nerdy wildlife-show host who’s employed as a spokesman for the company. Unfortunately, their squabbling never amounts to much, and somehow the film’s ultimate villain appears onscreen only about ten minutes before the climax. Maybe Bong Joon-ho wanted to use their scenes to dissect the nature of modern agribusiness, but even in that case, he isn’t quite sure what he wants to say: There’s some vague dialogue that points out that people are disgusted by the idea of genetically modified foods, although they’re technically safe and help feed humanity, so it’s not that bad for corporations to lie about them, but it still looks really shady?
Okja is on firmer ground when it sticks to being an adventure yarn, one with some truly staggering set pieces. The very best sequence in the film is a madcap chase through Seoul, with Mija, a handful of Mirando flunkies, and the animal-rights activists all trying to get ahold of Okja as she races over a highway and through a shopping mall. It’s deliriously entertaining and very, very funny; it will make your heart ache as you realize that this is what we’re missing out on as Hollywood wastes billions to have anonymous hacks make forgettable crap like Spider-Man 19 and Dracula Teams Up With the Mummy. That scene is pure movie magic, and it’s enough to recommend the film as a must-see all by itself. Yes, it’s a shame that hardly anyone will get to experience Okja in an actual movie theater. But how can we accuse Netflix of ruining cinema when they’re the only company left willing to bankroll something so defiantly weird and thrilling?