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“Some pig,” Charlotte the spider famously wrote of her friend Wilbur in a timeless children’s tale, but she just as well could have been referring to the title character in “Okja,” filmmaker Bong Joon Ho’s scabrous satire for adults that premieres this week on Netflix.
A larger-than-life collision of conflicting tones, gargantuan set-pieces and unsubtle social commentary, the film follows in the footsteps of the South Korean writer-director’s extraordinary English-language debut “Snowpiercer” with another series of hairpin stylistic curves and barn-sized performances, at once both heartbreaking and ghoulishly funny. Love him or hate him, there’s nobody else making movies quite like this guy.
Bong — whose breakthrough 2006 creature-feature/family-melodrama “The Host” followed a giant lizard rising from toxic pollutants dumped into the Han River by an American army base — isn’t exactly coy when he’s got an ax to grind. “Snowpiercer” was a class warfare fable set upon a speeding bullet train, its final reel a sly takedown of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” complete with Ed Harris as a gaseous John Galt-y industrialist. “Okja” fires a few shots at our current media culture but mostly it’s a horror movie about factory farming, detailing the ghastly practices of the fictional Mirando Corporation. (Any resemblance to Monsanto is presumably entirely intentional.)
A laboratory-engineered, floppy-eared “super pig” slightly larger than an Escalade, our lovable Okja is first seen frolicking around a South Korean mountaintop forest with her constant companion — spirited, 14-year-old orphan Mija (An Seo Hyun). Mija has been raising the adorable animal for the past decade, as part of a PR campaign cooked up by one of the bickering Mirando sisters (played by twin Tilda Swintons) to try and make folks less wary of their genetically modified organisms by showing off some cute ones. The theory is that then we won’t feel so weird about eating them.
But when a broken-down TV veterinarian (Jake Gyllenhaal, overacting atrociously) comes to collect Okja for a Mirando-sponsored parade in New York City, Mija loses her cool. The remainder of the movie is devoted to madcap chase sequences and daring rescues, our plucky heroine joining up with the Animal Liberation Front — an idealistic collective of gentle vegans turned violent revolutionaries. They’re led by a wonderfully droll Paul Dano, attempting to reconcile his peacenik manifesto with the messy tasks at hand.
The movie’s early highlight is a massive foot/truck pursuit through Seoul with tiny Mija constantly dwarfed by the immensity of both her surroundings and her porcine pal. Bong once again demonstrates a sharp eye for controlled chaos, the bravura sequence crashing through an underground mall as frenzied circus music on the soundtrack gloriously, inexplicably gives way to John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.”
Not every offbeat choice works so well — Gyllenhaal’s performance is a flat-out disaster — but the movie is full of bold, sidelong jabs. Sharp-eyed viewers might bust out laughing at a moment when Swinton and her confidant Giancarlo Esposito are framed to mimic that iconic Situation Room photo taken during the Osama bin Laden raid. (Swinton even puts a hand over her mouth.) Nobody ever accused Bong Joon Ho of being subtle.
"Okja" became the subject of much extracurricular controversy at last month's Cannes Film Festival when jury president Pedro Almodóvar read a statement saying he "personally could not conceive" of awarding a Netflix-produced picture, citing the streaming service's refusal to release their films in movie theaters. The festival later announced that starting next year films without a French theatrical run will no longer be considered for competition. The Netflix logo was reportedly booed by festival attendees, and a (rare for Cannes) projection error during the first screening was assumed by the more conspiratorially-minded to be an act of sabotage by film purists.
Personally, I wish Netflix shared their competitor Amazon’s strategy of booking a theatrical run before streaming exclusively. It especially would have been nice to see “Okja” on a big screen considering how many of Bong’s visual gags are based on size and scale. But this isn’t my money, and let's not pretend modern movie studios are lining up to finance projects as kooky and idiosyncratic as this one. How soon we forget that the U.S. release of “Snowpiercer” was all but scuttled after lengthy disputes over editing with distributors at The Weinstein Company, and the film would not have even played the Boston area had it not been for heroic efforts by our friends at the Brattle Theatre.
I expect Almodóvar’s position will become increasingly more untenable as independent film financing continues to contract and Hollywood keeps narrowing its focus to franchises and branded properties. Later this summer, Martin Scorsese is scheduled to start shooting another of his decades-spanning gangster epics, this one starring the murderers' row of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. Confoundingly, Scorsese’s home studio Paramount Pictures (which just released “Baywatch” and “Transformers 5”) passed on the project, so now it’s going to be a Netflix Original Movie.
It's slim pickings for discerning viewers at the movies right now. I'm an almost pathological habitual moviegoer, and this is the first summer of my adult lifetime I can recall going entire weekends without a trip to the multiplex. To have a Cannes contender that's as big and crazily ambitious as "Okja" available through a streaming service is a paradigm shift that I'm sure makes a lot of people in the industry uncomfortable. But I'm just grateful there's finally something interesting for me to watch, even if I have to stay home to see it.
And I’m also overjoyed that people are still giving Bong Joon Ho lots of money to make super-expensive movies about how capitalism corrupts and destroys everything good in the world.
Here's the trailer:
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