Of the great cinematic crimes perpetrated against British audiences – which thus far range from the extremes of the Video Nasties phenomena to more eyebrow-raising stupidity of the occasional title change – that Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer still hasn’t gotten a UK release after four years ranks somewhere around the middle. Those lucky enough to have seen said visionary dystopian sci-fi class drama though will doubtless breathe a sigh of relief that his directorial follow-up – controversial Cannes pick, Okja – has at least found its way our shores by way of streaming giant Netflix. Naturally, following up something as groundbreaking as “Orwell on a train” is no mean feat, yet while Joon-Ho himself doesn’t quite manage it, what he delivers instead is a contemporary-set boy-and-his-dog tale (here shifted to focus on a girl instead) with just as much to say about our relationship with food and where it comes from as Snowpiercer did environments and class struggle.
The story – co-written by Joon-Ho with Jon Ronson – sees redemptive corporate CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) attempt to salvage her family’s murky legacy with a new initiative to solve world hunger through the breeding of “super pigs”. Dispatching her specimens to various points across the globe to be reared according to regional practices, one such specimen – the eponymous Okja – finds a faithful companion in young Korean girl Mija (impressive child talent Ahn Seo-hyun). Ten years on and with the super pigs ready to be unveiled to the waiting masses, Mirando’s scientists swiftly arrive to retrieve Okja, but they’re not the only ones interested in the company’s prized pig – with the Animal Liberation Front equally invested in hijacking the transfer to expose the corporation’s sinister goings-on, dragging Mija along for the ride.
Directorially, Joon-Ho had always hinted at something of a comic book-fuelled satirically-fired insight, but it wasn’t until Snowpiercer that this aspect of his storytelling finally got taken off the chain. As madcap as that was though, Okja sees the Korean director take his sensibilities even further, subsequently both to the advantage and detriment of an excellent satirical adventure that proves admirable in its unwillingness to fall into cliche and the need for textbook cinematic cheeriness. The third act, in fact, is downright cynical, its ultimate conclusion shooting successfully for the downbeat whilst simultaneously allowing for a “third option” in its conclusion you may well never see coming, yet still makes complete sense even as regards the loopiness of Joon-Ho’s gleefully confidant storytelling.
That confidence though feels periodically misplaced, particularly in the context of Jake Gyllenhaal’s utterly unfitting celebrity zoologist, whose deranged antics push the dark humour of proceedings into brief bouts of Gilliamesque parody. Thankfully, Swinton – on her second teaming with the director – knows just how to keep it all anchored. Teamed here with a stellar lead in Ahn Seo-hyun, meanwhile, a great supporting turn from the oft-underrated Paul Dano, and solidly slimy support from Breaking Bad fave Giancarlo Esposito, the cast’s otherwise a solid win across the board, and the stylistic design of Okja herself proves as successful in its physicality as it does in crafting a mute character who earns our adoration and awe.
Though Okja could never hope to be the groundbreaking work it’s directorial predecessor was, to it’s credit – it doesn’t try for anywhere near the same terrain. Instead, by following the pattern of utilising a science-fiction set-up to explore a humanist story of our darker underpinnings, Okja takes on its adventurous – almost Amblinlike – story with self-assuredness, unflinching faith in its crafting and a knowing confidence in the robust nature of its storytelling – all of which it does with absolute deservedness and a “so glad it’s this good” level of success.
Okja is available exclusively on Netflix from Wednesday, June 21st. Check out the trailer below.