Heading into Okja this week I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Was this going to be a mix and match of ET, Free Willy, 101 Dalmatians and Babe? Maybe throw in a touch of Cowspiracy too? Fortunately, although those are classic films I feel like Okja was careful to forge it’s own path and not retread over any cliched, sentimental or too tired ground. The result was a film that was surprising from beginning to end and innovative too. Netflix’s approach of finding talented artists and giving them blank cheques before saying: ‘Come back when you have a finished film,” seems to be breathing new life into a tired film industry. One that’s been far too reliant on remakes and comic book blockbusters. With Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Okja’ it feels like they’ve landed on a winner.
Bong Joon Ho’s style is arresting and acute. Not one to pull punches, visually or by way of his script, Bong also has an inate sense of when to break up the darkness with levity or a well timed joke. He and his cinematographer Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, Seven) have incredible vision and the ability to find shots that others don’t, all the while managing to allow space for their enormous, cgi, superpig. I don’t think it’s a reach to call Okja a visually epic success. From the incredible mountain shots of South Korea to the cold, corporate distopia of the Mirando Corp in (not quite) New York, Bong gives the audience enduring, resonant images on the regular. His ability to reveal character through the frame is remarkable and his choice of music is as distinct as it is affecting. At one point during the break into act two Bong sends a frantic chase into slow motion as Annie’s Song by John Denver begins to play. Mirando’s lackies draw guns loaded with tranquilliser darts and fire them at Okja, who is protected by ALF operatives that use umbrellas to deflect the darts. The scene is chaotic, beautiful and one of the moments of the film that showcases Bong at his surprising best.
Performances in the film range from realistic to extreme. While the audience is prompted early to take sides in a fight between good and evil, both sides seem to have characters with Machiavellian tendencies. While at a macro level the morals seem clear, zoom in and Bong appears to be saying that when you get right down to it, everyone’s a little mad. Jake Gyllenhaal is certainly madder than most though, delivering what I’ve heard best described as “a performance that could be seen from space.” But his counterpart in Paul Dano definitely walks a fine line between passionate activist and tyrannical extremist.
While I’m not sure that these eccenticities would work well in isolation, all the madness does contrast well with the audience’s identification character. Mija, who despite travelling from the mountains of South Korea to Seoul and New York, clinging to the top of a moving truck and instigating a shopping mall stampede, clearly seems like the most sane character in the film. Her sweet and simple determination to bring Okja home is critical to the movie’s success and fortunately, Seo-Hyun Ahn has the necessary charisma to pull it off.
Balancing exposure and privacy is a beautiful thing and it’s a skill Tilda Swinton has managed to perfect over the course of her impressive career. A truly gifted character actor, Swinton has never been one for tabloids or front page news. Her projects are artistic, well chosen and have not often been blockbusters with her face at the helm. It is for this reason that I believe Swinton has avoided the trap, fallen into by many of her contemporaries, where they end up becoming a parody of themselves.
Take somebody like Johnny Depp for instance, who both makes headlines and sells movies on his name alone. The trade-off of his commericial success has been big exposure and the-big-business-of-Hollywood colouring our reaction to some of his weaker and weirder roles. There have been enough Willy Wonka, Mad Hatter and late Pirates of the Caribbean missteps, that if another Tim Burton/ Johnny Depp collaboration was announced tomorrow, it would be more likely to illicit a groan than an excited cheer.
Swinton on the other hand, depsite playing characters as strange as they come, Lucy Mirando included, seems to be a magnet for critical acclaim by avoiding the spotlight. (Dr. Strange excluded.) Her films tend to appeal to the demographic that will appreciate them the most and although Netflix pushes Okja into a more mainstream environment, the creative freedom Netflix allow their film makers seems to have given Swinton the home court advantage in this case. Her performance as Lucy and Nancy Mirando is both beguiling and unsettling. But perhaps the amount of work my brain had to do to convince myself that Tilda didn’t have a twin sister and was infact playing both Lucy and Nancy is testament to her ability to completely inhabit any given character.
However, the most surprising element of Okja to me was it’s unrelenting pace. For a film with a running time of a little over two hours, Okja held my attention and barely ever seemed to drag. There is genuine drama and tension throughout the film, which helps drive the action and culminates in some gut wrenching chase and action sequences. Parts of it legitimately feel as if the spirit of Tom Cruise inhabited the body Seo-Hyun Ahn as she was doing her stunts as Mija, who is potentially the most surprising action star of the year, maybe even the decade. If anything, Okja dragged slightly in places during the middle, while serving it’s B and C storylines regarding Lucy Mirando and the ALF, but overall, the way the film demanded and held attention was superb. During one attempt to free Okja, I checked the time, fully expecting us to be halfway through and was amazed to see only a quarter of the movie remaining.
Okja is a film that should both challenge and entertain mainstream audiences. Seeing Netflix take risks like this with their original content is both exciting and auspicious for the future of their film production. What’s also exciting is the way the platform has now set a precedent for introducing uncompromising foreign artists like Bong Joon Ho to the wider western market. In a world dominated by comic book movies and same-same releases that seem to follow a formula, Okja and Netflix can hopefully usher in another class of film that looks to serve more than just the masses and the bottom line. Netflix have been looking for a breakout film to kick start their movie studio for some time now and with awards in editing and special effects categories likely to follow, I think they may have found it.
If you’d like to delve deeper into everything Okja related, (from what is spawning these stories, to why I thought Okja shouldn’t have been allowed to live.) Tune into my podcast with Matt Lausch, Netflix and Grill, available now on Apple podcasts, Stitcher and SoundCloud and if you’ve made it this far, don’t forget to like and share, cheers.