Cannes 2017 review: Okja (Bong Joon-ho)

For the few minutes that we spent staring at a dark, empty screen this morning, following the technical problems that caused a stop and restart of Okja’s screening, I started to reflect on the level of the conversation surrounding the first Netflix original film to take part in the Cannes competition. Beyond the controversies, the negotiations, the compromises, and of course the humor of it all, this is still a milestone for the festival and the industry in general. And while Bong Joon-ho’s new film – a sweet, playful, if a bit lightweight tale of friendship, activism and super-pigs – is not best suited to take this ever-expanding querelle in its stride, it nonetheless will have to live with it for a long time.

But as we sat there, watching the film’s introductory sequence twice (the irony of the Lumière theater lacking a ‘resume where you left off’ function was not lost on anyone), it was the fact that we’re asking the wrong questions that bugged me the most. Rather than taking sides in a clash of models, shouldn’t we accept them both as complementary and shift our attention onto what happens to Netflix films once they’re released, if and how they’re being watched, and – crucially – how can the company better serve the fringes of the artistic landscape?

From this angle, Okja is already an interesting test case with its cult director of international prestige, audience-friendly stars, and broad family-oriented appeal: that’s plenty for the company’s algorithm to chew on. Is it as good as Bong’s previous global blockbuster Snowpiercer? No, it is not. Is it still perfect for Netflix? Absolutely, if they manage to support it without burying it too deep within their catalogue.

Anchored by a steely performance by young An Seo Hyun as protagonist Mija, the story has the simple geometric elegance of Bong’s better efforts: when a greedy corporation takes away your genetically-modified super-pig to turn it into affordable bacon, you chase them down to a different continent and rescue it. And when you find a locked glass door on your path, you take two steps back and run into it without a second thought – just like Okja (the titular super-sized friendly pig) used to do with trees to make the juicy fruit fall off.

Bong Joon-ho, maestro of the forward motion, is typically brilliant in doing the same to his own film, not only creating his usual ensemble of mismatched, diverse, idiosyncratic characters, but bundling them all together and launching them full speed ahead. The early standout sequence of Okja is the best example of that, with giant pigs, corporate goons, eco-terrorists and badass Korean teenagers wreaking havoc through a Seoul shopping center.

If that sounds over the top, it doesn’t even take into account Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal as, respectively, the head of the Mirando corporation (whose idea of good business is swapping the manufacturing of napalm for brightly-colored, inoffensive environmental mumbo-jumbo) and its public face, washed-out zoologist Johnny Wilcox. Especially within Netflix’s framework, they are probably the biggest draw of the film, but turn out to be the least accomplished part, despite Jon Ronson’s (The Men who Stare at Goats, Frank) contribution to the spiced-up script.

Much of the conversation regarding Okja will undoubtedly deal with the social message underpinning the story, which is a shame considering it is so broad and generic to somehow dull even the innately subversive spirit of Bong’s most accessible but still refreshingly weird film. With an assist from some incredible CGI work on Okja’s body, he nails the cuteness factor while leaving enough of his trademark style in.

For some proof, look no further than his expert handling of Paul Dano’s group of activists, a tricky balancing act of intrinsic humor, serious dedication to the cause and some organically complex exploration of where exactly can the activism start if it’s limited by non-violent rules. It’s often played for laughs, but with some profound implications. Not an easy feat, especially with so little screen time. Even the final payoff to Tilda Swinton’s capitalist baddie is deliciously smart and utterly obvious in the space of one line. As it turns out, super-pigs can be nimble, too.