Whatever you’re currently binge-watching needs to sit on the back burner for 2 hours. The best film yet by one of the most acclaimed directors on the planet just premiered on Netflix.
The easy part of reviewing writer/director Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is that I only have to describe what happens in the film to tell you just how good it is. A decade ago, Lucy Monsanto announced—oh jeez! “Monsanto?” I meant to write “Mirando.” I wonder how I ever made that mistake… Anyway, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of the evilest evil corporation ever, Miranda Corp, announced a new breed of superpig and an international competition to see which culture’s traditional farming methods would raise a prize specimen. Naturally, Swinton playing an insecure corporate executive who knows she’s “everything wrong with big business” is as fascinating a role for her as ever.
Fast forward 10 years, South Korean farm girl Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) grows up alongside her superpig, Okja, and the pair have an unshakable bond. It’s not long before Jake Gyllenhaal arrives in the form of Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a washed up television zoologist who seems like he dropped out of drama school to get a degree in biology, to collect Okja for taste tests. Gyllenhaal’s totally bizarre, vocally spastic performance is unlike anything I’ve seen and may very well be the heart of the oddball film. Mija teams up with militants in the Animal Liberation Front, played by Steven Yuen, Paul Dano and Lily Collins, to rescue Okja. However, their plan is really to let the superpig undergo tests so they can discover what Mirando Corp is really doing with the animals. Along the way, Joon-ho’s signature tone shifts and bleak humor make sure the film’s as strange as possible in any given moment.
See? If Okja doesn’t already sound like a great film to you, then there’s not much I can do to help. Something in your soul is off-kilter if just reading the description above isn’t enough to make you think, “Okay, this movie is probably pretty awesome.” Yes, the film’s deeper meanings aren’t hard to spot, which will cause some critics to cry ham-handredry. Okja’s message is probably pretty clear to you already. It’s about as unsubtle of a story as can be expected from the director of Snowpiercer, a film that used train cars separated by economic class as a vehicle to discuss income inequality. However, brazen doesn’t necessarily mean “dumb” too, and Okja is still a quietly clever film, even when it seems loud.
My biggest problem with Okja (in fact, my only real problem) is Dano. He’s the leader of the animal rights squad rescuing Okja, but I’ve simply never bought Dano in roles that demand a heroic or formidable presence. Even next to the lead child actress, Dano’s the only actor in the ensemble who can’t hang. When he violently reprimands a subordinate, I just can’t believe it. Dano’s silly here and not always in the subversively humorous way Joon-ho intends. I fully admit this could simply be a case of me not liking Dano as an actor, which I normally don’t, but this seems like it goes beyond my preconceptions and is just straight-up miscasting.
That’s pretty much it for Okja. It’s every bit as good of a film as I expect from one of the best filmmakers in the world. I guess all you really need to know is the story and that it’s the best possible telling of said story. I know you’re in the middle of Orange is the New Black, 13 Reasons Why or whatever else, but you desperately need to take an Okja break. You don’t even know how badly yet. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year and definitely the most original. If you don’t have a Netflix subscription, ask a favor from a friend who does or steal their password. You need to see Okja.