[NOTE: This is a repost of our review from the Cannes Film Festival; Okja is opening in select theaters and available on Netflix starting June 28]
There is an unavoidable controversy surrounding the Netflix titles screening in competition at the 70th Festival de Cannes. There are passionate feelings all around and no easy answers, unless you’re Netflix, of course, who financed the two features and could easily release them in theaters first if they wanted to. The fear is that the brouhaha might overshadow the filmmakers’ artistic endeavors playing out on screen. Happily, that’s not the case with Bong Joon-ho’s cinematic marvel Okja.
The film begins 10 years ago at a press event in a dilapidated factory for the multinational company Mirando where newly installed CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton channeling vapid pop star realness) is putting on a show and tell to reposition the entity for the 21st Century. Mirando announces her company has found a “super-pig” in Chile that could help solve the world’s food shortages with “minimal” effect on the environment. After breeding it in their facilities Mirando plans on placing 26 different super pig piglets with individual farmers around the world. The best raised pig will be showcased during a special super-pig pageant a decade down the road.
Fast-forward to 2017 and a beautiful forest in the hills of North Korea. Mija (An Seo Hyun, a remarkably talented 13-year-old) has raised the jovial and energetic super-pig Okja alongside her grandfather (Byun Heebong). The young girl and the pig have a close bond that Jong-ho tenderly and patiently explore. They fish in a shallow river together. They enjoy the quiet tranquility of the woods together.
There bond is so familiar that Mija can nap on Okja’s back and when her large friend rolls over she’ll stay asleep rolling onto her stomach like a cat or dog adjusting to their owner in bed (just one example of the visual effects team’s incredible interactive work). In many ways Okja is more like a friendly hippopotamus than what one would expect of a giant pig. She’s smart, loyal and loving.
During one incredibly conceived sequence, Mija decides to lead Okja back home via a shortcut on a narrow walkway on the side of a mountain. While trying to tie a rope to lead Okja around her neck Mija slips and slides down and over an embankment. She desperately holds on to the rope to save herself from a deadly fall into the canyon below her. Okja can barely keep the rope from slipping under her hooves let alone steady herself on the rock’s uneven surface. She quickly sees a tree stump sticking out of the side of the cliff and races to drag the rope around it thereby swinging Mija to safety while she crashes into the trees below. It’s a riveting and moving moment early on in the picture that’s marvelously executed and foreshadows the potential heartbreak to come.