Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal are deliciously flamboyant in Netflix’s crowd-pleaser.
Perhaps the hottest topic upon the Croisette this year is that of Netflix; the home streaming giant, who have two titles in competition for the Palme d’Or. Festival traditionalists oppose their inclusion, and greeted the company logo with a plethora of boos at today’s screening of Bong Joon-ho’s (Snowpiercer) fantasy drama, Okja: one which then concluded some ten minutes later due to the Grand Théâtre Lumière’s screen being presented in the incorrect aspect ratio. Considering a large number of those against Netflix are complaining of the screen sizes and the “limited experience” home entertainment offers, the error couldn’t have been more ironic.
An ever-impressive Tilda Swinton stars as Lucy Mirando; the new CEO of a reformed family empire, who looks set to rebrand their reputation following her father’s business atrocities. Partnered with Giancarlo Esposito, the Mirando Corporation insights a new global farming regime, which sees the artificial manufacture of “Super Pigs” – oversized and all-natural variants of the animal, which are designed to supply a starving world the much required proteins and portions it longs for.
The company starts a ten-year incentive among its corporate farmers to raise the largest pig, awarding the successful candidate with a rapturous parade and prized unveiling in New York City. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the globe, a young girl, Mija, (An Seo Hyun) frolics in the vast mountains with her beloved ally, Okja. A gentle beast, she is one of the new breed, who’ll soon be forced to embark on a riotous and frightening transatlantic adventure.
Joon-ho is no stranger to magical material, and he exercises his dense skill set thoughtfully throughout. Okja benefits from some bewitching imagery; its characters alive amongst the contrasting settings of South Korea and the United States. Cinematography is plush with foliage, particularly atop the mountains which linger with ethereal haze. However such beauty is quick to fade, as the second act takes a sharp tonal shift, and we begin to see the sordid ramifications of Mirando’s investment.
Here Paul Dano’s rebellious fraternity of animal welfare advocates step in to assist Mija’s quest to return her beloved pig from cruel clutches. In less steady hands, Okja could dumbfound by such a vast turn, but Joon-ho finds surprising humour in the scenario; smartly poking fun at the absurdities of Greenpeace and their respective culture, whilst still highlighting the importance of their cause.
A rich ensemble cast is along for the ride here, including a deliciously flamboyant Jake Gyllenhaal, who serves up plentiful dark laughs as Dr. Johnny Wilcox; a television presenter and zoologist. The likes of Lily Collins, Steven Yeun, Shirley Henderson, and Daniel Henshall round out the gang. Collectively the performances are solid, but its hard for the many to distract attention away from the gleefully macabre work showcased by Swinton and the Nightcrawler star.
For all of Okja‘s merit however – and it has many – it isn’t without flaws. Pacing is occasionally problematic, with the film peaking and dipping throughout the climatic hour, plus similarities between Disney’s recent Pete’s Dragon are frustratingly unavoidable, even if this one spits out a lot more expletives. Still, what Joon-ho brings is experience, which compliments and textures his imagination. His world of social and aesthetic opposites feel lived in and full realised, and his mythical creature becomes a vital, organically-excreting part of such environments. Camerawork is fluid, editing is clean, and music composition is charming.
So, when adding our two cents to the great debate, is Okja worthy of a place in Cannes? Absolutely. Sure, it may reside on a platform which isn’t inherently cinematic, but the product itself fizzes with filmic prowess. Will it win the Palme d’Or? Most likely not…