On first glance, Okja is much like its giant, genetically modified (and strangely adorable) title character. Among Bong Joon Ho’s films, it distinguishes itself as the biggest—in terms of budget and globe-trotting scale, at least thus far—as well as a bit of an oddity. It’s the rare film of his that has a concrete lead rather than an ensemble; it’s his only film to put a child directly in the spotlight; and it feels like a fantasy in a way that his other movies (which generally pull from the world as we know it) don’t—save for its bloody, grimy climax, which sends the freewheeling story crashing back down to earth.
Upon its release in 2017, Okja was Bong’s highest-profile work to date. With a $50 million price tag, it was bigger than even the 2013 science-fiction thriller Snowpiercer, his English-language debut, which, at $40 million, was itself leagues beyond its predecessor, 2009’s Mother, made for $5 million. (For further context, Bong’s 2019 megahit Parasite was made for roughly one-fifth of Okja’s cost, the director has said.) It also, as a Korean-American coproduction, featured a cast of talent relatively known to Western audiences (Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Dano) and, more important, was to be distributed by Netflix. Unlike Bong’s earlier films, which had received limited releases outside of Korea, Okja would be instantly available to a worldwide audience and, as one of Netflix’s first big plays at awards contention, would be a prominent international release. (Notably, when it screened at Cannes, the Netflix logo prompted both laughter and boos from the gathered crowd.) In more than a few ways, it was something of an unknown, unprecedented entity.What could be a relatively simple story—a young girl, Mija (An Seo Hyun), is separated from her “superpig” best friend, Okja, and sets out to get her back—becomes an odyssey, taking Mija and Okja from the Korean countryside to New York City (yes, George Miller’s 1998 Babe: Pig in the City served as an inspiration) and embroiling the pair with both the dubious Mirando Corporation and the equally shady Animal Liberation Front (ALF). There’s no easy way to sum it up: it’s not a kids’ movie, yet it shies away from the so-called grimdark tendencies of similar films that have courted adult audiences, and even Bong’s own generally more sober palette; it’s not an action film, despite reaching Spielbergian heights when its characters are set loose; and it’s not even a call to vegetarianism or veganism, despite the bleak picture it paints of the meat industry. In other words, it’s much, much more complex than the fairy tale its premise may initially suggest.
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