Okja (After the Campaign Movie Review)

Netflix’s campaign for Okja, from director Bong Joon Ho, was pretty substantial when compared to some of the other efforts from the streaming company and nascent distributor. There were two trailers, a handful of posters and a decent press push that included a controversial screening at Cannes. All of that was to support a prestige movie the company hoped would raise its profile among filmmakers as well as attract new subscribers.

The movie’s story follows Mija, a young girl growing up on a farm in the remote mountains of South Korea. For the last 10 years that life has included caring for a super-pig named Okja, a massive but gentle beast with whom Mija spends most of her time. When the multinational conglomerate Mirando Corporation takes Okja, Mija sets out to rescue her pet, along the way encountering a group of peace-loving animal liberators, an over-the-top wildlife program host, and other colorful characters. Some want to help, some not. The only thing that matters to Mija is finding Okja.

The marketing was a bit inconsistent in tone, with trailers selling it as if it were akin to Pete’s Dragon or something, a tender story of a child’s love for an unusual pet. Sure there was a bit of tension and some exciting chase scenes on display, but those were tempered by healthy doses of whimsy. The posters, on the other hand, along with some notable in-world promotions, presented the movie more as the tale of corporate greed, a cautionary tale of the dangers of the industrial food system.

It’s surprising to find, then, that the movie itself is all of that. It’s both a touching story of a girl and her super-pig and an indictment of the companies that control our food supply and who are concerned only with public image and profits generation. So it’s not that the movie was ever sold poorly or inaccurately, it’s that with so much going on tonally it’s hard to convey all of that in the limited space Netflix provided. Add another poster and another trailer and you have more room to dive deeper into the different aspects of the movie and sell all that to the audience.

Here I’d like to turn the spotlight to Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Johnny Wilcox, a self-aggrandizing host of nature specials and who now works for Mirando. Gyllenhaal gives a performance that’s so over-the-top and captivating I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it in quite some time. Every scene is so BIG as he flails his arms, squeaks his voice and flop sweats to dominate the frame as much as possible. By contrast, Tilda Swinton’s performance as Lucy Mirando (and her twin sister Nancy), which is at times outlandishly cartoonish, is downright restrained and subdued.

If I were to take issue with one aspect of the campaign, it’s that it misrepresents a premise that’s at the core of the story, specifically Okja’s past. It’s not a huge problem, but the marketing gives an impression of the creature’s history and the circumstances under which he’s taken from Mija by the Mirando Corporation that’s not accurate to the story. That winds up being important because the ending of the film is as gut-wrenching and disturbing as any documentary you could watch about slaughterhouses and industrial beef farms.

Okja isn’t an easy film to watch and may not be as consistently great at Ho’s previous Snowpiercer but is still recommended. Just make sure the dinner you’ve enjoyed before or will be eating later is just a salad.

Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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