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Movie Review: Netflix Goes Whole Hog With Social Satire 'Okja'


Published June 28, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 26, 2017 at 11:42 p.m.

Traditionally, this isn't the season in which a studio releases its five-star material. Summer is for superheroes, sequels and star-studded action extravaganzas. Of course, there's nothing traditional about the Netflix business model.

Another month, another $50 million TV tentpole, complete with major names on both sides of the camera, first-rate production values and everything one associates with film-going at its finest, except the part where the film is over there and you go to it. That's so pre-streaming.

As of June 28, the latest from South Korean visionary Bong Joon Ho is available to be gaped at from the comfort of your La-Z-Boy on the device of your choice. And gape you will, I guarantee. The director of The Host, Mother and, most recently, the eye-popping Snowpiercer has teamed up with Brit lit phenom Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) and improbably topped himself. With a little help from a really big pig.

A CGI superpig named Okja. Here's the deal: Atop a verdant mountain in South Korea, a 13-year-old named Mija (An Seo Hyun) enjoys an idyllic life with her minivan-size playmate and her grandfather (Byun Heebong). She spends her days romping with her porcine pet, periodically napping on the hippo-esque hog's lap as the creature basks in the sun. Okja's not just supersize but highly intelligent, as she demonstrates in an extraordinary early scene in which she risks her life to save Mija's.

That paradise is lost when agents of the Monsanto — I mean Mirando — corporation abscond with Okja and bring her to New York City. As we learn, the company distributed genetically modified piglets to farms around the world 10 years earlier as part of a corporate promotion. And Grandpa got one. The always-fabulous Tilda Swinton costars as Lucy Mirando, the agrochemical giant's insecure, ethically challenged CEO.

It's her idea to cover up the origin of the pigs in genetic modification and to publicly pretend a single superpig discovered in Chile had spawned them. Okja, it turns out, is the big winner in that publicity stunt, involving a contest to see who could turn a little piggy into the largest while still "honoring traditional techniques specific to [the farmers'] respective cultures."

The filmmakers have a field day with Lucy and her penchant for promo-speak. She sings the pigs' praises with terms like "eco-friendly," "natural" and "non-forced," knowing full well the animals are a profit-driven science project. Okja emerges as the superest of the superpigs, and Mirando brass can't wait to show the world what they've cooked up. Meanwhile, Mija sets out to save her pet from a fate as cheap chops on a plate.

She gets an assist from the loopiest group to hit the screen in ages, a band of scrupulously polite and ultra-peaceful eco-terrorists known as the Animal Liberation Front. Led by a scrupulously polite and ultra-peaceful chap named Jay, entertainingly played by Paul Dano, members of the ALF attempt to rescue Okja and expose the machinations of the nefarious multinational. It's a marvelous creation and clearly the zany fruit of Ronson's imagination. Selecting a collaborator can be one of the most pivotal filmmaking choices a director makes.

From its jaw-dropping effects to the inspired dialogue, Okja is a one-of-a-kind wonder. With its cloud-kissing vistas suggestive of otherworldly landscapes by the greatest Chinese painters, Darius Khondji's cinematography alone is worth the price of admission. Oh, that's right: We're talking about Netflix. No ticket needed. In every respect imaginable, this genre mash-up proves itself to be precisely priceless.