Light spoilers to follow.
Summer movie season is upon us, but you won't find this season's most original movie in theaters. Okja, premiering on Netflix June 28, is the new giant animal action/adventure movie from Bong Joon Ho, the South Korean director of the 2013 dystopian critical darling Snowpiercer.
I caught it at an early press screening in New York, and it's by far one of the most delightfully idiosyncratic and entertaining movies I've seen in years, touching upon genetically-modified animals, activism, and corporate responsibility.
While Snowpiercer ambitiously tackled the idea of class warfare on a train containing the survivors of a ruined humanity, Okja is in some ways even more sweeping in scope. It's at once a moving plea for animal rights, a gentle mockery of animal rights activists, an unflinching critique of "ethical capitalism" and the livestock industry, a wacky corporate satire, and a harrowing adventure with enough heart and soul to outmatch the best Disney and Spielberg movies.
The basic plot concerns the titular creature, Okja, a pachyderm-like "super pig" created by the fictional US agro-giant Mirando (a Monstanto/Whole Foods hybrid) and loaned out to a subsistence farmer in rural South Korea for a decade. During this time, the farmer's granddaugher, Mija, becomes Okja's best friend. When the corporation returns to take Okja back, Mija objects, and all hell breaks loose.
Without giving too much away, Okja shows how the idea of "ethical capitalism"—a trendy buzzword for companies that purport to contribute to society in some way beyond their stated business purpose—is ultimately bullshit. The Mirando corporation in the film claims to be offering "non-GMO" animals because it's what consumers want, but it's quickly revealed that this is a pure marketing lie: the "super pigs" have been created in a laboratory after numerous genetic experiments gone wrong.
Without giving too much away, Okja shows how the idea of "ethical capitalism" is ultimately bullshit.
While the film's portrayal of GMOs is at odds with the real available science—which shows they are safe to eat—the larger point is that companies will ultimately abandon any supposed principles in favor of profits, which is a lot like real life. This message might sound heavy-handed, but it never comes across that way because the effects, acting, and writing all suck you into the story.
The special effects in particular are subtly brilliant. The character of Okja, rendered with a blend of CGI and practical effects (a giant mobile puppet rig), looks like a several-ton animal occupying the same physical space as the other live actors. Witness her diving into water and creating an appropriately massive splash, and later barrelling through an underground shopping complex in Seoul like the proverbial bull in the China shop (a scene that includes a hilarious and succinct jab at selfie culture, as one bystander fleeing the carnage pulls out her phone and livestreams her own escape).
When it comes to those human actors, An Seo Hyun steals the show as the unstoppable teen protagonist Mija trying to bring her animal friend back home. Snowpiercer actress Tilda Swinton returns again as a villain of a different stripe: Lucy Mirando, the immature and profane business heir struggling to rebrand her company from her predecessors' sins. Jake Gyllenhaal takes a turn as a deliberately annoying Steve Irwin-type TV animal handler, and Paul Dano shows up as the leader of a group of bumbling activists from the Animal Liberation Front (a real animal rights' organization) who struggle to maintain their commitment to nonviolence.
(Nobody from the real ALF had admitted to seeing the film at the time I was writing this, according to a phone interview I had with Will Hazlitt, press officer for the North American ALF. But he said he gathered from articles about Okja that the ALF was presented heroically, and it's "always beneficial when the work that people do under that banner is portrayed in a favorable light.")
Swinton's and Gyllenhaal's performances are over-the-top and initially grating. They are eventually balanced out by the seriousness of the film's other characters, but the first five minutes of the movie—which feature Lucy giving an exaggerated, wacky presentation in front of an animated background, complete with cutesy music—were almost obnoxious enough to make me stop watching. If you can make it through that, you'll be surprised at how much this movie's plot and script grip you (the movie was co-written Bong and journalist/screenwriter Jon Ronson).
It is somewhat ironic then that this sharply critical, anti-corporate, and frankly anti-capitalist film comes from Netflix—a multibillion dollar tech behemoth. Yet as was the case with previous Netflix original creations, Okja's director Bong has said that the company gave him "total freedom, with no restrictions," when it came to making this movie—a stark contrast to what reportedly happened with Snowpiercer, which came to America through the more traditional and apparently meddlesome Hollywood distributor the Weinstein Company.
Okja opens in 2007, the same year that Netflix itself began its streaming movie and TV service. The company didn't even start releasing original programming until 2012. It's hard to imagine now in a world where "bingewatching" and "Netflix and Chill" are part of the US cultural lexicon, but back then, the idea that a tech-driven video subscription service would make its own content and release it directly to consumers at all once was seen as risky.
Movies like Okja prove that even as Netflix has grown to become one of the largest players in all of entertainment, it's not abandoning the daring spirit at its core. That's the kind of capitalism worth applauding.
Okja will be available on Netflix worldwide on June 28. It is filled with profanity and some pretty gory animal rape and violence (in the form of a massive industrial farm and slaughterhouse), so I wouldn't recommend it for younger viewers.