Film, Reviews, Screen

Cannes film review: Netflix feature film Okja by Bong Joon-Ho

As Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) continues to break barriers within the film and television industry, Netflix has again cemented itself as a pioneer of the digital medium. Netflix has proven to be a powerhouse, not only of quality television but also of narrative cinema that pushes boundaries with two feature films in this year’s festival, Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories‘ and Boon Joon-Ho’s Okja.

Okja, by the South Koran director of The Host and Snowpiercer, takes Netflix’s brand and continues to push it to new limits (it has been nominated for the Palme d’Or). Set in South Korea and New York, the film follows a magical super pig named Okja as she is taken from the Korean mountains she’s always called home to the USA after winning the Best Super Pig contest. Manufactured by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of a huge company aimed to put an end to the issue of hunger, Okja goes on a journey she in not expecting, even being saved by the Animal Liberation Front in their effort to expose the Mirando Corporation for performing terrible acts on animals.

The film continues Netflix’s quest for diversity, expertly blending the languages, cultures and scenery of South Korea and the United States. Darius Khondji’s cinematography and expert editing by Yang Jin-mo creates a beautiful juxtaposition, not just between New York and the South Korean countryside, but also between the American metropolis and Seoul, showing their cultural differences.

The film excels in its performances. Ahn Seo-hyun, who plays Mija, the young farmgirl who helped raise Okja, gives a breakout performance, fleshing out the gutsy yet vulnerable portagonist, a dynamisism which is not easy to portray on screen at such a young age. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a stellar performance as Dr. Johnny Wilcox, the spineless, animal loving television-personality, his high pitched timbre masquerading the actor almost entirely and playing masterfully opposite Swinton’s manic CEO.

While the film features excellent performances and stunning visuals, it falters with its message. Appearing at first to be a critique of the meat industry (often blurring the line between quirky and a vegan’s fever dream), the message and moral of the story sometimes spirals into a critique on consumerism and the exploration of the side effects of GMO foods.

Although both industries often go hand in hand, the purpose of the film gets slightly lost as the two moralistic lessons intertwine. By the end, it seems as if the characters have been completely oblivious to the moral message that has been thrown at them throughout the film, a shift in character mind-set that seems too subtle to be a deliberate directorial decision.

Overall, the film was a beautiful pathway to narrative features for Netflix and has proven that the SVOD service is more than capable of producing excellent films with universal messages that help expose their global viewership to international stories and talents.

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