We’ll get to the film at hand in a moment, but first—and just briefly—there’s no getting around the controversy that’s all but dominated the first couple of days at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It began, really, when the festival announced its lineup, as two titles in Competition, Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, are Netflix originals. The company had planned to stream both in France without theatrical releases. French cinema owners protested, Netflix arranged a few theatrical screenings, and Cannes declared that, as of next year, all films in Competition must also eventually open in French theaters.
“The protest speaks to the heart not only of the French film industry but also of French national identity,” notes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “France has long adhered to the idea of cultural exception—that culture should not be treated like other goods—to protect its audiovisual sector from the ravages of the free market, which has often put the country at odds with the United States. It’s an idea that has affected world trade negotiations and sparked debates over globalization, a nation’s cinema and diversity.”
On Opening Day, jury president Pedro Almodóvar and fellow juror Will Smith clashed over the necessity of theatrical presentation—Eugene Hernandez has a full account for Film Comment—and Almodóvar felt his comments were misconstrued. “Not me nor any member in the jury will make any distinction between the two Netflix films and the rest of the films in competition,” he tells IndieWire’s Anne Thompson. “We’re here to judge artistically the 19 movies that the festival has selected. We have said so before, but I want it to be clear.”
Alright, then. On to Okja. “How can this movie’s producer—Netflix—ever be content with just letting it go on the small screen?” asks the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “Apart from everything else, the digital effects are spectacular and the visual images beautiful. It’s a terrible waste to shrink them to an iPad.” Five out of five stars.
Little White Lies’ David Jenkins suggests that Okja “plays a bit like Lassie Come Home inter-bred with Frederick Wiseman’s eye-watering food processing documentary, Meat. After all the heartache that Bong went through with his exceptional previous, Snowpiercer, it’s heartening to see that he’s turned his back on the standardized Hollywood production line and is looking for new ways to attend to the world’s global hunger for great cinema. And in many ways, that’s exactly what Okja is about—it’s Bong in dialogue with himself, picking apart the future of the medium, and looking for new and logistically feasible means of expression. All with the help of an enjoyably brash script written by British journo Jon Ronson.”
“The pantheon of crushingly lovable cinematic creatures needs to clear a very large alcove, and lay on a good supply of fresh persimmons, for Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, the eponymous, enormous, hippo-like ‘superpig’ whose covalent bond with her human best friend could pulverize the hardest of hearts,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “This is the visionary, genre-bending Korean director’s most broadly accessible film ever, not just because it’s largely in English, and not just because its so full of fun and mischief and adventure. It’s also because it’s a relationship we recognize from the other children’s classics to which it easily compares (E.T. being the obvious touchpoint), and possibly even, if we were very lucky kids, from our actual childhoods.”
“A rollicking rescue movie with deep ache and hope in its heart, Okja feels like just the right story for this grim political moment,” finds Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “It’s something of a clarion call to those resisting the creep of various -isms—capitalism, totalitarianism, fatalism—without succumbing to sanctimony or sermonizing. It’s also funny and thrilling, chock full of masterfully constructed set pieces that spin and chase with dizzy brio.”
At ScreenAnarchy, Pierce Conran calls Bong “a master of twisting something new out of the familiar” and sets the scene: “In 2007, the Mirando Corporation, run by the highly eccentric and publicity-crazed Lucy Mirando [Tilda Swinton], sends 26 superpigs to farmers across the world, beginning a ten-year long competition to crown the Best Superpig and bring it back for a celebration in New York. When the time comes, 14-year-old Mija [An Seo Hyun], living high in the mountains in the Gangwon Province of South Korea with her grandfather, is torn from her best friend Okja. Not willing to let her friend go without a fight, she chases after her across the globe and finds herself caught in a struggle between the diehard activists of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the corporate soldiers of Mirando.”
“Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performances as corporate baddies set on turning giant pigs into lucrative bacon are much less fun than they should be,” finds Time Out’s Dave Calhoun. “Gyllenhaal's turn as a narcissistic, crazed animal expert is especially over-ripe and grating. . . . Visually, this is a classy affair: Darius Khondji’s photography enhances rural and urban locations alike. But the pig-chasing antics and cartoonish corporate nastiness that dominate much of the film become seriously grating.”
“There are suggestions of Bong’s great monster movie The Host, but, if anything, Okja is brasher, madder and less connected to everyday reality,” writes Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. “About Jake Gyllenhaal’s awful, high-pitched nails-on-a-blackboard turn we will say no more than he manages the feat of not giving the oddest performance in a film that also stars Shirley Henderson. No matter. The film around him is a mad pleasure.”
“The film is packed with so many strange gems of moments, and while a few feel like Bong losing the plot (specifically any time Okja decides to loosen her bowels) it always snaps back together,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “By the time Mija and [Paul] Dano’s crew find themselves at a hellish slaughterhouse, Bong’s no longer messing around, even if the victims in question are CGI hippos. For all its wackiness, Okja is also a deeply humane film.”
Also at Vulture, Kyle Buchanan lays out an argument: “Netflix spent $50 million on the effects-laden project, but I can’t imagine a conventional theatrical release would have recouped: You’d have to go wide and spend tens of millions more to even entice people into theaters, and the movie is just too weird to survive that kind of thing. . . . While the French may jeer Netflix, there’s no question that few other places would have let Bong Joon-ho execute his vision just as he’d wanted.”
Updates, 5/20: For the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang, “it’s the 13-year-old Ahn who holds this pig-screen entertainment together as it (ahem) barrels forward into its darker, tonally trickier second half, en route to a devastating finale that may wreak havoc on your bacon consumption. As Mija singlehandedly stares down the greedy multinational enterprise that threatens to separate her from her beloved super-sow, her determination lends this weird, funny, and disturbing speculative fairy tale a striking degree of emotional force.”
“I greatly disliked the film, and I felt alone in the wilderness of cheering,” declares Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “Okja takes the worst impulses of Walt Disney, Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, and Michael Moore and rolls them into one movie. Poor, poor Okja. As a movie creation, she's inventive and lovely. And she's saved from the worst, thank God. But in the end, she's sacrificed at the altar of self-congratulation. Maybe it's a worse fate.”
For Lawrence Garcia at the Notebook, “the shift from broad satire to grim brutality, especially towards the end, feels queasy, almost manipulative, threatening to collapse the film's already-fragile framework. That’s not to say that Okja is completely wrongheaded; it's clearly impassioned in its convictions, and for good reason. But flat observations earnestly told do not a good film make.”
“The Host had a similarly ambitious game plan, but it also had a rock-solid emotional core,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “Okja is soggier at its center, its girl-and-her-pig fable too cloying and familiar for these tastes.”
“Bong loves getting Swinton to accessorize,” notes the Telegraph’s Tim Robey: “she wears dental braces and peroxide locks in one role, a kind of Republican-Burberry-predator outfit in the other. But there’s shading and bite that only she can insert: the avowedly well-meaning Lucy feels like she’s teetering on the edge of meltdown at all times, and her public appearances are riveting displays of stricken pantomime. Swinton was full-on to a fault as Snowpiercer’s toothy fascist, but here she’s right on the money.”
“If there’s any real discovery to Okja, it’s the energetic performance of newcomer An Seo-Hyun as Mija, who also stands out in several of the more ambitious action driven sequences,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “But as vibrant as her presence is, her relationship to her big friendly pig is never really allowed to develop, at least not to the degree where their separation should sting our eyes. In a formula used in many similar instances, from Free Willy (1993) and perhaps most obviously Babe (1996), Okja misses all the emotional marks (in ways Stephen Chow nailed in his 2007 CJ7).”
“This effects-driven ensemble piece is a tonally uneven affair, cluttered with tone-deaf dialogue and crudely sketched characters that recall Luc Besson at his most obtuse,” writes Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter.
Updates, 5/21: For Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage, Okja confirms Bong as “one of the finest contemporary craftsmen of intelligent, ambitious blockbusters. . . . As for the blatant anti-capitalist message, it’ll be up to the individual viewer to decide whether to take issue with the fact that it’s articulated by a film produced by Netflix and peppered with product placements for Apple. As straight-up entertainment, however, Okja is beyond reproach.”
Trevor Johnston, dispatching to Sight & Sound, finds that “Bong has clearly come a long way from the blackly playful disposal of sundry yappy apartment-block pooches in 2000’s Barking Dogs Never Bite; while the joshing aimed at the ALF here slightly softens the animal-rights agenda, the way Okja becomes a symbol of the marketing infantilization masking the ugly practicalities of meat production shows Bong willing and able to spoil the party. Still, the bittersweet finale also flags up the challenges ahead in providing a harvest for the expanding world, so no platitudinous solutions here, just a movie that showcases Bong’s admirable flair for artfully unhinged spectacle, deftly undercut by a chastening reality check that never allows us to enjoy ourselves too much.”
“Much of the conversation regarding Okja will undoubtedly deal with the social message underpinning the story, which is a shame considering it is so broad and generic to somehow dull even the innately subversive spirit of Bong’s most accessible but still refreshingly weird film,” writes Tommaso Tocci at the International Cinephile Society.
Update, 5/22: “To the end, Okja is as endearing, chaotic and awkward as its title creature,” writes Tim Grierson for Paste. “Sometimes, the movie requires the same loving embrace Mija provides for Okja—even though, unlike that portly pig, Okja often lets you down.”
Update, 5/23: “The whole film seems to be about how the United States and its corporate allies project power across the world,” suggests Bilge Ebiri, dispatching back to the Village Voice. “Certainly, the fact that Lucy presents herself as the less mentally ill (but no less ruthlessly opportunistic) alternative to her extraordinarily cruel sister (also played by Swinton), who was previously in charge, seems significant — a nod to the fact that even under kinder, gentler administrations, the United States continues pretty much all of its imperialist policies. . . . There’s a lot to chew on here, but in the end, I wish Okja simply worked better as a movie.”
Updates, 5/24: “Bong’s filmmaking is so singularly impressive that even at its most derivative, Okja feels like a momentous spectacle, but it’s the first film of his ever to give the impression that the spectacle is masking an otherwise underdeveloped, often incoherent, concept,” writes Sam C. Mac at the House Next Door.
Okja is one of the films discussed in the latest Film Comment Podcast (59’45”).
Update, 5/25: “Few master cinematographers working today are more associated with a classical approach to shooting on film than Darius Khondji,” writes Chris O’Falt, introducing an interview for IndieWire.