“It’s all edible except for the squeal.”
Netflix came to the Cannes Film Festival this year, and the results were less than pretty. The streaming giant found themselves a hostile guest among the glitz and glam of Cannes, with judge and filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar commenting, ““I personally don’t perceive the Palme d’Or [should be] given to a film that is then not seen on the big screen.” Almodóvar’s comment wasn’t anything new, but rather the latest voice in the chorus of cinephiles who have come to loathe all things streaming, firmly believing that cinema isn’t cinema if it’s not shown in a cinema.
Then came time to screen Okja, a highly anticipated film from The Host director Bong Joon-ho. Things got off to an inauspicious start, with the audience booing the Netflix logo, only to have technical difficulties sideline the film. It was a less-than-desirable way for Netflix to show-off their stab at the cinematic. But then the technical difficulties were remedied, and the film played on. And the audience — the same audience that had fiercely booed two hours earlier — applauded.
With Okja, Netflix has to put to bed any silly argument over big screen vs. small screen, because the simple fact is this movie would be a stunning masterpiece no matter what sized screen you watched it on (although please, for crying out loud, don’t watch it on a phone; have some common sense). Here is a wild, inventive, haunting miracle of a movie; a film bustling with life and pathos, as funny as it is heartbreaking. It may very well be the best film of 2017. And it’s about to premiere on your TV.
Okja opens with a presentation by the manic Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), head of the multifaceted, clearly evil Mirando Corporation. The Mirando Corporation has genetically engineered a species of animal dubbed super piglets, although they look more like cuddly hippos. The idea is the grow the piglets to a massive size, and then harvest them for profit — profit being food and anything else that will, of course, lead to the animal’s demise. Mirando deposits several piglets with farmers across the globe with hopes of breeding a winner, a super piglet to end all super piglets. The winner will be determined in a decade.
Ten years later, we drop in on one such super piglet, the adorable, gassy Okja, who has been raised in the mountains of South Korea by pre-teen Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her farmer uncle. Mija and Okja spend their days grazing through the forests or nestling against each other for long, lazy naps. It’s an idyllic, charming looking life, so you know it’s only a matter of time before trouble comes calling. And it does, in the form of Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a clownish TV zoologist who works for the Mirando Corporation. While Mija is distracted, Dr. Johnny and his team spirit Okja off to America, leading Mija to embark on a globe-trotting adventure to save her. Along the way, she’s aided by a group of animal rights activists, lead by the kind but occasionally violent Jay (Paul Dano).
Okja recalls E.T., with its sense of wonderment and its story of a young person drawn to protect an out-of-this-world creature. There are wild, entertaining chases through crowded public spaces, and there’s an incredible sense of empathy at work here, specifically through Mija and Okja’s relationship. But there’s darkness, too. Without ever being too preachy about it, Bong has created a film that will make people think twice about sinking their teeth into meat. A sequence set at a hellish slaughterhouse is devastating, and features a long shot that lingers in haunting fashion, with a horde of super piglets crying out as one into a stormy night. It may be too traumatic for some, but there’s a power in this imagery; the kind of undeniable power that few filmmakers are talented enough to capture. Yet Bong makes it look almost easy, directing with a steady hand and a brilliant eye.
An Seo Hyun is wonderful as Mija, conveying strength and innocence in equal measure. Swinton is predictably strong as the nervous Lucy Mirando, although a lot of the performance seems to radiate from the wig and braces the character ends up donning. Dano is empathetic and amusing as the animal-rights activist, and his team, including Steven Yeun as the well-meaning but flawed K, and Lily Collins as the pink-haired Red, make great side characters. But the real wonder here is Gyllenhaal, giving the strangest performance of his career. The actor has never been so loose and peculiar before, adopting a high-pitched voice and an odd gait. Some will no doubt find Gyllenhaal’s performance too out-there, but if you’re in tune to its weird wavelengths you’ll be in for a treat.
Then there’s Okja herself. While clearly a CGI creation, it’s quite easy to accept Okja as a living, breathing creature. It would’ve been easy for Bong and his team to anthropomorphize the animal. But that never happens — Okja never seems like anything more than an animal, albeit a lovable, relatable animal. This makes the creation even more powerful — we don’t need her to be Disney-fied in order to relate and empathize with her.
Would Okja be improved on a big screen? Maybe. It is, after all, a film filled with striking visuals; with scenes that pull back to wide-open landscapes; with chase sequences that fill every inch of the frame. But just because Okja would look incredible on the big screen doesn’t diminish it on your TV. Whenever this TV vs. Big Screen argument rears its ugly head, I think back to my childhood, and the films that turned me into a movie lover. I think back, appropriately enough, to Steven Spielberg’s E.T., which I first glimpsed not in a movie theater but via a VHS tape watched on a boxy TV long before the days when widescreen TVs were commonplace. Seeing it in that format didn’t make the movie any less wondrous. Movies, the best movies at least, are magic, and magic needs not a huge stage to cast its spell on you. It just needs to capture your attention, in whatever possible form. It needs to make you believe in something wonderful existing in a mundane universe. Okja weaves such magic. And it does it all in the comfort of your living room. How could you possibly resist such a treat?