Review: Okja

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

PLOT: A young girl (Ahn Seo-hyun) tries to rescue her best friend, a genetically modified super-pig, from the clutches of a multinational conglomerate.

REVIEW: OKJA marks the second major studio-level feature to be released by Netflix this year. With a budget of $50 million and a cast peppered with big names, Bong Joon-ho’s follow-up to SNOWPIERCER could have conceivably been made by a major, although there’s no way, short of being financed by someone like Megan Ellison, that it would have ever hit theaters in its current form. The fact that Netflix will allow someone like Bong unfettered creative freedom is worth celebrating, although the resulting film fluctuates from being sublime to tedious throughout, making it a mixed bag.

Co-written by Jon Ronson (THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS), the “meat is murder” aspect of the plot is crystal clear, with the hapless super-pigs created Tilda Swinton’s Mirando company, all adorable, puppy-like creatures, created as a cheap way of harvesting meat. The fact that Swinton’s CEO is a braces-wearing sociopath, and treated as a freakish-caricature gives the whole thing the vibe of a satire – a genre that’s quickly becoming a calling-card for Netflix between this and WAR MACHINE, but also keeps the audience at an arm’s length.

Bong’s style is highly idiosyncratic, with harder-edged, F-bomb-dropping moments bogged down by about twenty endless minutes of cutesy poo playing between Ahn and the titular pig, and silly scatological humor that seems lifted from a BEETHOVEN flick. Given that she dominates the film, it’s good young Ahn Seo-hyun’s performance is so on-point, with her displaying a resolve and toughness you don’t typically see in North American kid actors. Of all the performances, it’s the only one that seems grounded – everyone else plays it as broad farce. Swinton’s a pro at that, and Paul Dano, Steven Yeun and Lily Collins, as a team of activist-terrorists who try to free Okja for the own purposes, come off well.

Jake Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, is nowhere near as lucky. As a squeaky-voiced nature show host, wearing shorts and sporting a mustache, Gyllenhaal hasn’t been this broad since BUBBLE BOY, and it doesn’t work. Maybe he was trying to channel Nicolas Cage, or just being directed to go as cartoony as possible, but whatever the case this is a disastrous piece of miscasting, and one of the few times he hasn’t nailed a part. Every time he’s on-screen you’ll cringe in embarrassment for him.

It should also be said that, despite the big budget, the pig never looks real. Throughout, Okja looks like pre-viz, and an effect that they clearly didn’t have the budget to render in a way that really makes it convincing. A decade ago it might have looked OK. In 2017, it looks archaic, and makes it tough to generate any real empathy for the animal.

As far as pure entertainment value goes, OKJA has its moments. A big chase sequence scored by John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” is the highlight, although it’s the only real action beat. Otherwise it’s more concerned with Swinton’s comical corporate intrigue, and the bonding between Ahn and the pig. As such, whether or not you like OKJA wholly depends on whether you can invest in their relationship. For me, OKJA is a clear step-down from SNOWPIERCER, and not as good as THE HOST either, although Bong has certainly made the movie he set out to make, and as such it’s a real director-driven piece of work, which is increasingly becoming a rare thing. His vision alone makes OKJA worth checking out, but I can’t quite drink the punch and say this is Netflix’s first great movie, which is what a lot of people are saying. To me, WAR MACHINE was a lot better, but it still has its moments, that’s for sure.




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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.