Okja – Extravagant but unsettling family movie hits the meat industry right in the face

This sci-fi blockbuster from hot shot director Joon-Ho Bong was widely recognized as a new Netflix Original hit long before it officially came out. A little girl and her favourite pet, a massive hippo-sized pig, are separated by evil Americans, causing the little girl to go into full-on hero mode and do everything possible to be reunited with her clumsy piggy “Okja”.
Seems innocent enough, but the story of “Okja” makes for a very disturbing cocktail containing classic family movie values (cute hero and clumsy pet) mixed with social issues such as violence, exploitation and a massive not-so-subtle swipe at the modern meat industry.

Celebrating its debut at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival seemed to be the perfect start to the success story that this movie would most definitely become. Unfortunately, right at the beginning of the premiere there was a bit of a hiccup when attendees started booing the Netflix logo which came up right before the film started.

Quite rightly, some might think. Online streaming services like Netflix are changing the movie landscape internationally and are the new troublemakers in town, taking cinema lovers out of their red velvet seats and plonking them onto the couch at home. Massive Netflix movie productions like “Beasts of No Nation”, “To the Bone” and “The Fundamentals of Caring” would probably have been classic cinema blockbusters just a couple of years ago.

These days big screen movies go directly onto the small screens in millions of homes (109.25 million in the case of Netflix) and are enjoyed in sweatpants with some homemade popcorn. As is the case with “Okja”.

There’s no doubt that director Joon-Ho Bong, a south-Korean mastermind, likes a bit of extravaganza. Bigger is better and more is more. Movies like “Snowpiercer” and “The Host” prepare us for the explosion of an extraordinary colour palette, the elaborate settings, detailed characters and some critical hits at common problems of modern society. “Snowpiercer” is an elaborate science-fiction dystopia that depicts the class struggle on board a train, “Okja” takes a clear blow at the meat industry, genetic manipulation and the premise that “people buy everything as long as it’s cheap”.

What follows is an elaborate scheme to turn a perfectly cute child-animal relationship into something so disturbing and critical that even grown-ups will be deeply shocked. Which is, of course, the exact goal of this movie, which brings with it classic blockbuster features such as super famous movie stars like Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton, action scenes that put “Die Hard” to shame and a young hero that takes the stick much better than some hunky Hollywood men.

Bong manages to merge so many socially important topics in this otherwise classic blockbuster, perfectly supported by Swinton and Gyllenhaal’s caricature-like portrait of their characters. The audience is left with a very sobering happy end that manages to leave us deep in thought about how we live our lives blind to so many cruelties happening backstage of the spectacle that is modern society.

“Okja” is deeply moving, surprisingly scandalous and quite simply extraordinary, with a thrilling storyline featuring an expertly staged adventure that perfectly walks the line between ridicule and overwhelmingly well thought-through social comment.

A definite must-watch. Hint for parents: it may seem to be a fun afternoon movie to watch with your kid but be aware – grown-ups and children both will need a strong stomach.

Kim Weidemann & Katja Plaß

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