Okja, written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, is a film that is continually building and ends up offering so much, in terms of the emotions it elicits and the ideas that it causes you to think about. This is no conventional film and if you’ve seen any of Bong Joon-ho’s previous films that shouldn’t come as a surprise to you. Much like his others film, this one had me fully invested and completely overwhelmed by all that it presented/tackled, and by the time the credits rolled, I was amazed by the journey that it had taken me on. But let’s dispense with all the gushing comments and the intro itself, and get onto the review and what it is that makes Okja such an interesting film to experience.
Okja is under the care of Mija – played by Ahn Seo-hyun – a 10-year-old girl who has been caring for the big loveable beast in the mountains of South Korea since she was 4. However a massive multinational conglomerate named, Mirando Corporation actually owns Okja and is taking her back and putting her on show so that the once poor image of the company can be continuing to suggest that it cares about the environment and the animals within it. That is of course not the case, and so with the help of animal rights activists, Mija will do anything she can to make sure her best friend and her return to the lush mountains of South Korea. The film goes even deeper than this and the depths that it explores are not easy to experience.
Initially when watching Okja, I thought I had it more or less sussed out. Its light-hearted tone, its endearing lead characters (one of which was a fictional CGI creature) and just the general path that the plot seemed to be taking, all had me believing I was going to watch a straight-forward, sweet adventure film, that at its core had a message it wanted to get across. Oh boy, were my initial thoughts misguided.
Okja is a film that brings you into its world with wacky individuals, a seemingly simply plot, and an overall sense that you’re going to be a part of something fun and, in the end, up-lifting. But that initial settling in phase is all in part to acclimate you and connect you to the people/animal that matter. Because later on the film shifts in tone and what was at first a fun romp with a girl wanting to protect and save her best friend, turned into something that was genuinely unsettling and, in a way, winded me emotionally.
I stopped smiling or chuckling along at the antics of certain characters and I started to feel disturbed and moved by what I was watching. It’s actually a genius move by director, Bong Joon-ho. Having the tone be light-hearted and fun, at first; having you settle into an assumed state, only to then blind-side you with the cruel reality of the situation, makes for an experience that sticks with you and completely dominates your attention.
This film has a very clear message that it wants to get across – that being how we treat animals that are turned into food – and at first I was expecting it to go about it in a pretty sedate, but meaningful way. But instead it built up to delivering its message in a much more memorable and emotionally crushing way – a way that certainly caused me to think about the subject even more.
And what is really interesting is that, Bong Joon-ho decided to explore this topic with a fictional creature. Again, it’s a very smart move on his part, as he is in control of the look, presentation and actions of Okja and he makes it so you can’t help but attach yourself to its loveably clumsy ways. This then means that later on when things develop and things escalate in some truly disturbing ways, you can’t help but be fully emotionally engaged, which in turn causes you to think about Bong Joon-ho’s very clear and very important message about animal cruelty.
However there was an issue for me personally and that was that Okja is completely CGI. I’ve spoken about this particular issue in past reviews (2016’s ‘The Jungle Book’ being a prime example) but I really find it difficult to make any real emotional connection to things that I know are completely CGI and are at no point real (I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t have cared less when Groot kicked the bucket, but I digress). During the beginning of the film I struggled to get past the fact that Okja was a CGI creature. I couldn’t help but look for the inconsistencies in the effects and I couldn’t ever see her as anything more than just ones and zeroes.
But again, as the film progressed and its approach to telling its story evolved, I found myself actually connecting and caring for Okja. By the end of the film I did not see those ones and zeros, I saw Okja. And I think a lot of that is down to, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). She is the emotional core of this film and it is she that brought me in and truly made me care – her desperate screams, as she tries to get to her friend and save her, are heart-breaking. She commanded the screen, my attention and it was a wonderful performance of a character that I cared about and wanted to see reunited with her friend.
And the film also boasts a great cast, who deliver some brilliant performances of some characters who are wide-ranging in their offerings; from the intriguing, to the wacky to the disturbing, the film is certainly rich and diverse in the types of characters that we see. Jake Gyllenhaal in particular delivers a fascinating performance; one that I’m still mulling over.
Perhaps the only thing that was really missing from this film (for me) was the lack of Bong Joon-ho’s visual voice. In his past films he has both delivered visual moments that have amazed me and absolutely elevated the impact of a particular moment – many of the sets and the fight scenes in, Snowpiercer being perfect examples, and he has also shown that he has a great understanding of how to communicate information to the audience, simply through showing us things on-screen. However, I felt, Okja didn’t really have either of those qualities. I’m sad to say that this was perhaps, Bong Joon-ho’s least stimulating film to look at, which is a real shame.
But that thankfully doesn’t detract from a film that offers an experience that is genuinely moving and genuinely memorable. Now, will the film succeed in getting people to stand up and fight for change in how we treat animals in food production (and other areas)? I’m not sure. But maybe it’s enough that it’s getting people to think about it; to talk about it? Again, I’m not sure. Either way, this is still a film that makes its mark and that I found to be a worthwhile experience.
I am recommending, Okja. This is certainly one of Netflix’s standout exclusive films and one you should definitely make the time to watch. It’s a film that will affect you for sure.
I’d love to know what you thought of the film and my review so please leave your opinions/feedback in the comments down below. Feel free to follow my blog directly and give me a wee follow over in Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. I suppose all that’s left to say is thank you for reading my review and I hope to see you return.