This was the first of the two Netflix films to be shown at Cannes and the one that initiated the uproar about streaming services vs. 'real' movies. Here in Britain it has now in fact been released theatrically (to by and large very good notices) as well as being available via Netflix, which is how I viewed it a few days ago.
The director Joon-ho Bong has made some extremely intriguing Korean films including the policier "Memories of Murder" (2003), the superior creature-feature "The Host" (2006), and head-scratcher "Mother" (2009). He's not exactly prolific and I've not yet seen his previous English-language movie "Snowpiercer" (2013), although that too sounds interesting, despite apparently having been mutilated by Harvey Scissorhands. All of his films seem to strive for a pointed subtext beneath their surface entertainment value. "Okja" continues this trend, since while it is certainly an ingenious concoction, there are some serious underlying messages.
Let me say at the start that (unlike some critics) I would not describe this film as his masterpiece. It is certainly entertaining, but it loses pace and sags in the middle, and there are some horrendous bits of acting among the Korean and English-speaking cast. Tilda Swinton who is beginning to seem ubiquitous nowadays fecklessly plays twins, one of whom -- supposedly the good sister -- runs the family's Mirando Corporation. In an attempt to solve the world food crisis, she has placed 26 genetically-modified piglets with different farmers throughout the world to test which will grow the biggest, fattest, and most importantly the tastiest. One of these piggies has been raised in Korea by Seo-Hyun Ahn's grandpa, and little Mija treats Okja as her own beloved and irreplaceable pet. So when has-been TV personality Jake Gyllenhaal (an absolutely embarrassing turn) visits their mountain-top farm, declares Okja the top specimen, and prepares to whisk her (Okja is a female too) off to New York, Mija is distraught. What we have here is the classic story of a boy and his dog translated into the tale of a fearless young girl and her mutant pet.
The CGI Okja is brilliantly conceived and fits into all of the action scenes seamlessly. From the rear she looks like a hippo -- and is even bigger -- with the head of a bull terrier, crowned by floppy friendly ears -- there's not much pig-like about her and she's like nothing we've seen before. Mija follows them to Seoul to try to free her pal, letting her loose in an underground shopping arcade where the creature becomes the proverbial bull in a china shop. Mija is befriended by Paul Dano and his motley Animal Liberation Front chums -- the most polite bunch of eco-terrorists you could hope to meet -- who want Mija to allow the animal to go to the States, complete with a hidden camera, to record the Mirando Corp's underhand cruelties. When their Korean interpreter asks the girl to co-operate she replies that she just wants to go back to her mountain with Okja, so of course he tells Dano that she agrees!
Finding herself Stateside Mija continues to try to spring her pet from ending up in the slaughterhouse which is the second and now in charge more evil Swinton's intention, and only a bit of bribery at the denouement saves Okja from this awful fate. However I was disappointed that when Mija managed to free her pal that she did not then release the myriad GM-animals waiting in turn in the stockyard to be killed. Now that would have been a scene well-worth seeing with hundreds of these creatures stampeding!
So the only happy ending is the pair back on their mountain, together with a single piglet that they managed to smuggle out (? a male to mate with Okja ?) and we are left with the overriding message that 'Meat is Murder', amusingly told.