‘Okja’ Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Review
Prior to becoming Film Twitter’s favourite filmmaker following the release of his Oscar winning masterpiece ‘Parasite’, genre-hopping Korean director Bong Joon-ho was introduced to a wider audience for the first time with Netflix Original ‘Okja’. A glorious, if slightly uneven environmental parable, and cautionary tale on where our carnivorous tendencies might take us in the face of unfettered capitalism. Available on blu-ray for the first time, ‘Okja’ has been given a stunning release on the Criterion label.
The film begins in 2007, with the multi-billion-dollar Mirando Corporation announcing their strategic pivot into environmental and humanitarian concerns. They have developed a breed of “super pig” in their labs in order to solve world hunger, and 26 specimens are being sent to farmers all around the world. In ten years time, one will be chosen as the best super pig.
Ten years later, in the mountains of South Korea, teenager Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) lives with her farmer grandfather and their super pig Okja. Now fully grown, Okja is the size of a giant hippo, but with soulful eyes and big floppy ears, she is more like the loyal family dog. Mija and Okja have a special bond, and spend their days playing and getting into adventures in the idyllic surroundings. There’s a touch of Studio Ghibli about these gorgeous early scenes, and the visual effects work is astounding.
The idyll is shattered however, when the Mirando Corporation, in the shape of Jake Gyllenhaal’s TV zoologist / Mirando spokesperson Dr. Johnny Wilcox, comes to take Okja back to America. Devastated that her best friend is being torn away from her, Mija runs away to Seoul to try and find Okja before she is shipped to the US. It is here that she crosses paths with the Animal Liberation Front, who themselves are looking to free the super pigs.
Tonally, the film is something of a wild ride, as Bong—working from his own script co-written with Jon Ronson—mixes humour, horror, action, and some of the most heart-wrenchingly moving scenes involving a genetically modified pig you are ever likely to see. It’s distinctively a Bong Joon-ho film however, with its absurd and/or horrific scenario being used to deliver piercing sociopolitical commentary.
The most jarring elements of the film are the performances, which veer wildly, though I’m sure it is intentional. Ahn Seo-hyun and Paul Dano (as ALF leader Jay) are tremendous, and very much the emotional centre of the film. Tilda Swinton (Mirando Corp CEO) and Jake Gyllenhaal however are spectacularly unhinged. Gyllenhaal in particular. How you feel about his Nic Cage-esque performance may ultimately colour your overall feelings on the film.
Personally, the whole thing works for me. Even with the wild performances and tonal shifts. You’re never quite sure what is coming next. It could be an incredible action set piece, some ridiculous slapstick humour, a satirical swipe so sharp it almost draws blood, or a moment of such tenderness you’re left weeping and drained, in a puddle on the floor. Visually stunning and brimming with imagination, ‘Okja’ is a remarkable and moving fantasy, with much to say on the way the world is going.
This new release is very well served with bonus features. ‘Completing the Journey’ is a conversation from 2021 between Bong Joon-ho and producer Dooho Choi, as they reminisce about the making of ‘Okja’. 30-minutes of director Bong talking about filmmaking…lovely stuff.
‘Creating Life’ is an audio interview with cinematographer Darius Khondji discussing his work on ‘Okja’. ‘A New Form of Love’ brings together the 2015 screen test by Ahn Seo-hyun, with an interview with her from 2021. ‘One More Time’ is an interview with Bong’s longtime collaborator Byun Hee-bong (who plays Mija’s grandfather) filmed and conducted by Bong in 2022 exclusively for this release. They talk about his career and the films they made together.
‘A Real Animal’ features VFX supervisor Erik-Jan de Boer and animation supervisor Stephen Clee discussing how Okja was brought to life on the screen. From concept art to creature design and the “stuffy” puppets used on sets. No matter how many behind the scenes VFX programs I see, I will never not be amazed by what these people can achieve. Pure movie magic.
‘Creative Collaboration’ is a short featurette looking at the collaboration between production design and costume design. This is followed by five ‘Netflix featurettes’, including Bong’s production diary, some promo clips with Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, and Steven Yeun, and short pieces on the VFX and soundscape of ‘Okja’.
The disc is rounded out with the teaser and full trailers, and a selection of promo videos from the Mirando Corporation made for the online marketing of the film.