Thursday, June 29, 2017

Reserved Seating: Okja

by Adam Riske
Netflix raises its game but Bong Joon-ho lowers his somewhat.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Okja is the biggest foray into feature films to date from Netflix. Bringing in South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho and an international cast with many recognizable faces (including Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun and Lily Collins), Netflix has commendably allowed Bong to remain idiosyncratic and afforded him an expansive scale in his telling of a friendship between a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), who lives in the mountains with her giant pig-like pet named Okja. Various groups have interest in Okja, ranging from animal right activists to a powerful, multi-national company ran by Swinton, who wants Okja and her species to sell as high-quality commodity foods.
Not to review other reviews of Okja, but the matter of tone has been addressed in most everything I’ve read about the film so it makes sense to start there. While I agree that the Okja feels like it's careening out of control, it was never an issue for me because I trust Bong Joon-ho as a fan. Quentin Tarantino has insightfully said that (I’m paraphrasing) an audience will go along with a movie that’s shaky or mysterious in intent as long as they know they are in good hands. I never thought Bong didn’t know what he was doing with Okja, so I was interested in the various moods of the film and felt I was being taken on a journey. I won’t spoil which, but when it was all said and done, Okja is similar enough to an oft-remade giant monster movie classic that it’s not all that jarring of an experience once you know the endgame. Plus, it’s a great rendition on that story because of the odd details happening on the margins. Okja isn’t as powerful emotionally or thematically as some of Bong’s previous triumphs, but that doesn’t stop it from being an engaging, if conventional, experience.

Okja is a bit of a high-wire act. It’s never too much of anything, but sometimes it’s not enough of some things. I am of two minds on the titular creature, who I thought looked less like a giant pig and more like a hippo version of Clifford the Big Red Dog. It’s cute and I responded to it in the way I respond to most animals in movies (e.g. connection with their soulful eyes, admiring their beauty in their natural habitat etc.), but the visual effect of the creature never comes alive as much as I wanted it to. Unfortunately, I think the design would work better in a movie theater than streaming on your television. Even the best HD presentation has a way of sapping the majesty from visual effects when they’re shrunk out of the intended scale. Then again, there’s a powerful sequence towards the end of the film (no spoilers) where we see many of these creatures, and the context, the implication, and the build-up to that moment render it very powerful despite the waning connection I had to the lead creature. The movie works very much in that way as a whole. There’s not one performance or moment that makes the movie soar, but it plugs along and it’s always interesting to watch, selling its big moments just well enough. Okja is the definition of a three out of four star movie.
I liked the film’s balance of set pieces with performance moments. It feels like a throwback to a mid-tier studio movie from twenty years ago rather than a blockbuster or an indie exclusively. Kudos to Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal for embracing the broad caricature personalities they were cast to portray. I was often wondering what the hell they were doing, but in a way that I found amusing and not frustrating. The animal rights activists (led by Dano, Yeun and Collins) aren’t given much runway to do anything with their characters other than drive the plot, which is a bummer. The best performance in the movie is from young Ahn Seo-hyun, who is the center of some really gnarly action scenes (I was often wondering how her character would have survived these moments) and acquits herself nicely in a physically and emotionally demanding role. I think the movie would have been stronger if it focused more on her relationship with Okja, but after the first act the movie wants to go in so many directions that it doesn’t have time to settle into any single one.
Okja is definitely a step in the right direction for Netflix in that they’re attracting esteemed artists and giving them a platform and budgets they deserve artistically, even if they would be big gambles financially in a traditional studio model. I don’t think they’ve found their footing yet and made a movie I would revisit or want to own, but I look forward to what is ahead for the studio. All in all, Okja is a compelling experience that I think will find its way into the silver medal category of the developing filmography of writer-director Bong Joon-ho. After the absolute marvels of The Host and Snowpiercer, Okja feels more basic and less emotional than those previous gems, but it’s a film worth celebrating because it’s the new Bong Joon-ho movie and any time we get a new work from a filmmaker of his talent we should give it the proper analysis and respect. Okja gets my recommendation and I give it a “Mark Ahn.” Not every movie has to be “the” movie.

Come back next week for Rob DiCristino’s return as we review multi-talented genius Edgar Wright’s, latest “the” one and only Baby Driver. See it this weekend and leave a comment with what you thought of Okja below. Until next time, these seats are reserved.


  1. Your thoughts mirror mine almost to a T.

    I had fun with this movie. I thought it was alternately whimsical and touching a thrilling and poignant in all the ways I think it was intended to be. It will certainly not be Bong Joon-Ho's finest work, but still a well crafted one in its own right. The tonal shifts did not bother me at all, but I never felt like crying like I kind of hoped I would going in. I also thought Gyllenhaal's character was super weird, but in a way that I found enjoyable, because he's always enjoyable.

    Ultimately I like this movie as a solid entry in Bong Joon-Ho's filmography and I like it even more as a signal of things to come for Netflix.

  2. ''Okja gets my recommendation and I give it a “Mark Ahn.” Not every movie has to be “the” movie''

    i also say that to my friends. when they complain that a movie is not great, i tell them 'they can't be all Citizen Kane'

  3. Not much to add here besides how Paul Dano is being really, really great. The last couple of years he's just been killing it and I'm totally down with whatever he does.

    However...I have no idea yet if Jake Gyllenhaal is awesome in this or terrible. It could be either way. But my god, do I appreciate how much he is swinging for the fences here.