Netflix is the home of some of the best shows on (“on”) television (“television”), but the streaming service has yet to release a genuinely great movie. There have been some noble attempts — Beasts of No Nation came closest but it failed to acquire the Academy Award nominations it was hoping for, while I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore was promising if forgettable — but, when it comes to movies, Netflix is still best known for keeping the Adam Sandler factory in business. Meanwhile, Amazon Studios (which co-distributes its films with an established company, like Magnolia Pictures) has put out The Handmaiden, Manchester by the Sea, Paterson, The Lost City of Z, and The Big Sick in the last year alone.
Both Netflix and Amazon have a seemingly unlimited cash supply, but the former is more willing to take expensive chances, like spending $90 million on a forthcoming crime-fantasy where Will Smith teams up with an orc cop, or $60 million for Brad Pitt’s War Machine. These kind of mid-budget, franchise-free movies rarely appear in theaters anymore, which is why it’s such a blessing Netflix acquired the rights to Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, especially after the trials the Weinstein Company put Bong’s last film, Snowpiercer, through. Bong can’t quite escape controversies he didn’t create, though: Okja received a four-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival last month, but it was also booed for being the poster child of Netflix’s cinematic takeover and an ongoing anxiety that streaming viewing had started to eclipse the theatrical experience. But removed from that environment, Bong’s creative, occasionally great, movie stands on its own merits.
The first face we see in Okja belongs to Tilda Swinton’s Lucy, an impeccably-dressed CEO hoping to rebrand Mirando, the Monsanto-like multi-national company she oversees, after a wave of negative PR. To do so, she sends out cute Chilean “super-piglets,” including Okja, to farmers across the globe, where the animals will be raised for 10 years and one lucky piglet will be made the face of the company — then killed. Cut to: 10 years later. Okja is now a full-grown pig (imagine Totoro meets the clumsy dragon in Pete’s Dragon meets a hippopotamus) living in South Korea with youngster Mija (a superb Ahn Seo-Hyun) and her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong). Mija and Okja are best friends: they catch fish together, they play together, they run through the wild together. (She even helps her pig-pal with her pooping needs.) Which is what it makes so tragic when Okja is pulled away from an unknowing Mija and taken to Seoul, then New York City, by Mirando, who are trying to mask some behind-the-scene horrors by, almost literally, putting lipstick on a pig.
Okja‘s rarely as strong as in these opening stretches, which span from Swinton’s introduction to Mija setting off on her journey to find Okja. It’s here that Bong’s vision is at its clearest, but more importantly, it’s also when Jake Gyllenhaal makes his debut as wheezing zoologist and TV personality Dr. Johnny Wilcox. I don’t know if Gyllenhaal deserves the Oscar he didn’t get for Nightcrawler (snub of the decade), but he should get something for his endearingly hammy, desperately sweaty, Jesse Eisenberg in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice-level performance here.
This stretch also includes an incredible chase scene through a tunnel and into a mall that once again proves Bong deserves every Steven Spielberg comparison thrown at him. But once Okja becomes involved in a plan to expose Mirando to the public, the movie gets a little messy. What started as a Hayao Miyazaki-inspired story turns into an eco-terrorism satire that also tackles consumerism, corporate greed, and, in one horrifying scene involving a drunk Dr. Wilcox, animal torture. Bong has an uncanny ability to mix and match genres (Snowpiercer‘s most famous scene is both tragic and hilarious), and while the individual moments work well in Okja, the tonal whiplash can be jarring when taken as a whole. The first half of the movie has a madcap scene where Okja, after being freed by an animal right’s organization, the Animal Liberation Front (or ALF — no, not that ALF; they would’t approve of his cat eating), comically rains poop on a pursuer. In the second half, there’s a gruesome slaughterhouse. It’s E.T. meets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
And yet, because of Bong’s technical wizardry and fondness for his characters, the titular creature’s convincing CGI, and the go-for-broke cast, Okja‘s slapdash scrappiness routinely works. It’s so close to greatness, much in the same way the Impossible Burger is this close to tasting like an actual hamburger. (Okja will make you think twice before eating your next slab of dead cow.) Maybe someday Netflix will replicate the immersive theater experience at home, and scientists will learn to perfectly mimic the taste of blood-and-meat using vegetables, but for now, Okja and the Impossible Burger are satisfying enough.
Okja premieres on Netflix today, June 28.