Cannes Review: "Okja"

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It didn't take much time for the anticipated, but controversial screening of Bong Joon Ho's "Okja" to create a stir. The film started off being booed not for its alliance to producer Netflix but because of a technical glitch which projected the film in the wrong aspect ratio. The film came to a screeching halt and a 7 minute delay followed. Once the film started again, booing happened for the reason we all thought it would: the Netflix logo appeared on the screen. It seems like the controversy will likely not stop as the fest continues and Noah Baumbach's Netflix produced "The Meyerowitz Stories" premieres in two days time. 

At the film's press conference for the film Tilda Swinton defended Netflix:

“Let’s be honest. There are thousands of films that are screened in Cannes film festival that we never see in the cinema,” Swinton says. “The most beautiful and most esoteric films that people never see in the cinema. It’s all an evolutionary process and Netflix have given Bong Joon-ho the chance to make his most liberated vision a reality. And for that I am so grateful.”

“As someone who has sat on many juries it is a task to immediately noble some people who have been invited to the party, but the truth is we didn’t come here for prizes,” Swinton says. “We came here to show this film to the Cannes Film Festival and to people who have gathered here from all over the world. And it is true we get the wonderful opportunity and privilege to screen or film on that screen. That’s part of the thrill of bringing a film to Cannes. I think it’s an enormous and interesting conversation that is beginning, but the truth is if you want  to know what I really think? I think as in many matters there is room for everybody.”

The director also had strong words when it came to the artistic freedom Netflix gave him, especially after the horror story that was his experience working with Harvey Weinstein on "Snowpiercer":

“I loved working with Netflix they gave me great support,” Joon-ho says. “The budget for the film is considerable. Giving such a budget to a director isn’t very common and i had total liberty. It was a wonderful experience. I’m saying that in terms of the shooting and the editing. They never intervened. They respected me from the beginning until the end. Quite frankly they gave me total freedom and liberty. No pressures on me. No restrictions on their part.”

Now on with my thoughts on "Okja."

I don't expect anything else, but a mess when it comes to South Korean director Bong Joon Ho's films. And I do mean that as a compliment. It sure as hell was the case for "Snowpiercer," his brilliant 2014 dystopian action film, and it definitely is again with his latest, "Okja."

We first Meet Mija () in her South Korean home where up on top of a steep hill she lives with her father, surrounded by nature and accompanied by her best friend Okja. For the last 10 years she has raised her beloved pig pet Okja as her own, despite knowing that this massive genetic experiment of a beast, courtesy of the evil Mirando corporation, will eventually have to go to the slaughter house. When the chickens come home to roost and it's time for Okja to be butchered to feed the masses, Mija takes things into her own hands and tries to escape with Okja. She is helped by the Animal Liberation Front, a non-violent group, lead by a well-meaning Paul Dano, that stages raids to save animals in danger and refuses to adhere to the rules and laws set forth by the FDA towards animal cruelty. The film's tough political stance of animal meat produce is refreshing to watch as far too few mainstream, or indie, films tackle the subject matter. Here it's given a smart case study.

The Mirando corporation is headed by Lucy Mirando, scene-chewing Tilda Swinton, a woman that has always been overshadowed by her much more successful twin sister, who threatens Lucy that one more fuck up and she's taking over the company. Swinton, just like in "Snowpiercer," is the perfect fit for Bong Jon Ho's pop hysteria. She overacts, underacts, sometimes subtly acts in fact, her role as a self-conflicted boss that knows she's committing evil, but just can't help it. There's good lurking somewhere in there, and she knows it, but the temptation of success, to spite sis, is too good to resist.

The scheming Miranda Corporation come off as caricatures rather than humane villains, you never buy the scenes in which these corporate bigwigs plot their next insidious move or PR damage control.

Jake Gyllenhaal also stars as the certifiably insane Dr. Johnny Wilcox, the host of an animal show that seems to be in panic mode due to a ratings decline and sees Okja as his last great hope. You can tell Gylenhaal was pumped for the role, which has him in short-shorts, a creepy mustache, some of the worst hair imaginable and cartoonish demeanor. It's all damn-near over the top, but it works as you always look forward to his next on-screen appearance. 
Bong is a visionary.What matter is the bond between Mija and Okja , which feels genuine to watch and is the heart and soul of the movie. Also, the action sequences he stages don't disappoint and help counteract the more problematic aspects of the screenplay, which have mostly to do with unsubtle tonal changes that happen here and there. The film switches back and forth between E.T's whimsy and Snowpiercer's bouncily colored, nastily rendered, pop violence. That's all fine, it's an ambitious attempt on Bong's part, and watching the mess unfold is all part of the fun.  [B/B+]