Blu-ray Review: OKJA, Big Love Comes to Criterion
I remember being filled with excitement as I sat in the Palais auditorium in Cannes back in 2017, awaiting the press screening of favourite filmmaker Bong Joon ho's new film, Okja. I was with my ScreenAnarchy colleague Pierce Conran, who was even more excited. And despite some technical difficulties at the start, we were not disappointed (you can read his review here). I think I would need to use two hands to count how many times I've watched it; and yet, I never tire of it. Suffice to say, the new Criterion release was made for a fan like me.
There aren't many filmmakers who could make a film that is at once a comedy, an action film, a social drama, a political statement, and a love story, but Bong is one of them. It's the love story that's the strong, beating heart: the titular Okja, a large animal bred to feed a world going hungry, and her best friend, young Mija (An Seo Hyun), are sisters, soul mates, and best friends. When Mija learns why Okja was created, once the creature is forcibly taken from the farm on which they had be happily living with Mija's grandfather (Bong film veteran Byun Heebong), Mija will stop at nothing to get Okja back.
And this is a story that firmly wears its heart and mind on its sleeve. While it might seem to be taking a a stand against eating animals, there's more nuance to the themes. We need to protect and nurture all life around us and live with it in harmony, even if we do east meat. The members of the ALF are just as capable of dirty deeds, even if their core mandate is one of peace; even a corporate overlord such as Lucy Mirando is trying to do something right for the world, even as she gets it very wrong. There are some nasty people, though, no doubt, but at least those few make no attempt to hide their greed.
Despite a certain level of absurdity in the performances - Tilda Swinton's twin sisters Lucy and Nancy Mirando, head of an iconically evil corportation that masks itself as environmentally just, and Jake Gyllenhal's inspired over-the-top veterinary showman - or perhaps because of these, Okja is constantly brimming with life. And yet, it is seemless: we watch in sentimental enjoyment as Mija and Okja frolick in the countryside, our hearts are pumping with theirs are they try to make their escape in an underground shopping mall, our hearts are breaking as we see the fate that awaits other creatures like our gentle giant.
Okja is a film that cannot be classified nor contained; it breathes life in every moment, whether it be a quiet contemplation or a frenetic yell. It gains complete attention without the audience noticing how enraptured they've become, and it doesn't disappoint. I would call it Bong's masterpiece, but there are few of his films that aren't.
An advantage of releasing a recent film, is that you can pack it with extras. And that's certainly the case here, with several interviews, promotional and marketing videos from the film's release, and an excellent essay. The 4K digital master looks superb, and we never cease to believe that Okja is a real creature, so seemlessly does she fit into the screen.
It's wonderful to hear Bong discuss the first time the idea for Okja popped into this head (while driving), and his discussion with producer Dooho Choi shows the sentimatlity with which they view their project, and how all the pieces came together. Likewise, interviews with An Seo Hyun and Byun Heebong provide an interesting contrast - the former with one of her first roles, and really first starring role, and the latter seeing his later career flourish, and both of them smiling wide as they discuss their experiences on set.
For those who like insight into the technical side of film, there's a terrific interview with VFX supervisor Erik-Jan De Boer and animation supervisor Stephen Clee. If there is anyone who 'plays' Okja, it's Clee, but their interview is a fascinating look at how Okja was made - what they used on set so the actors would have something to interact with, how they 'built' Okja from the inside out, how they worked to make it look and feel as real as possible. Watching this and then interviews with the cinematographer, production designer and costume designers, and it's a class in how you need all these elements working together to create the whole.
Given that this was released on Netflix, the featurettes are preserved, that were used as promotion, featuring the actors, and well as snippets on the visual effects and sound design. But of far greater value are the 'commercials' made to seem from the Mirando Corporation, promoting Lucy's efforts to save the world from hunger, and a video made by the ALF exposing the lies. It's clever marketing for the film.
Karen Han's essay provides a deeper analysis of the film, with insight into the important moments and their meaning in themselves and the wider context of the story's themes of love, environmental crisis, and ramptant greed. She notes how the film works into Bong's recurring themes of empathy and the 'follies of capitalism', and how he fit that into a story centred on a child, and her love for her best friend.
- Bong Joon Ho
- Bong Joon Ho
- Jon Ronson
- Tilda Swinton
- Paul Dano
- Seo-hyun Ahn