In the early days of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the presence of the streaming giant Netflix dominated the press coverage, as the company had two films in the official competition lineup: Bong Joon-ho’s Okja or Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). Neither one, however, would be screened in French theaters afterwards, and as a result of protest within the French film industry, artistic director Thierry Frémaux announced before the festival began that all films competing in Cannes henceforth must have a French theatrical distributor. (At a screening of Bushwick in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, there actually was nervous laughter and murmurs at the appearance of the Netflix logo before the opening credits.)
Yet both Okja and the smartly-written The Meyerowitz Stories, the latter of which offered a career-changing dramatic performance by Adam Sandler, deserved a place in the lineup. They were among the highlights of the 19 films that competed for the Palme d’Or.
Among all the films screening at Cannes, Okja has a better-than-average chance of making a splash with a larger audience. It has as strong a pulpy, populist appeal as Snowpiercer, the last film by Joon-ho, and unlike several Cannes films that clung to one tone throughout (namely, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s bleak Loveless), Okja was the most dazzling in its use of color and snarky humor, variation of production design, and lucid action sequences. It was the most suitable selection for the state-of-the art screening at the Grand Théâtre Lumière, and the only one in which the visual flash on screen matched the chaotic excitement of the red carpet gauntlet. Sofia Coppola’s candlelit chiaroscuro southern gothic/black comedy The Beguiled was a close second.
Boon gives the audience a show. His film is the cinematic answer to the eye-popping, Looney Tunes–exaggerated world of a graphic novel. Boon throws a lot of ideas and schtick onto the screen, and they stick. Though the tone goes all over the place, it’s a cohesive work—part action romp, part Island of Doctor Moreau, with a large dose of coming of age. The pace stays light on its feet, even as the narrative takes a grim (as in the Brothers Grimm) turn.
The story is straight out of a middle-grade novel: The powerful agrochemical conglomerate Mirando Corporation has secretly engineered a new species of 26 piglets, supposedly in an effort to reduce the number of livestock and therefore lessen the carbon footprint while producing more food. It’s an effort to rebrand the family-owned company’s toxic history—the dad made nerve gas. (The movie was obviously made before the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement.) The 10-year secret project is the brainchild of chirpy CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who spouts polished, camera-ready sound bites. To promote its self-awareness, the company will stage manage a ticker-tape event in downtown Manhattan to celebrate the Best Super Pig Festival, which will feature among the handpicked specimen Okja, before all the mutant creatures are to be lead to the slaughterhouse.
Okja, a CGI creation, has been raised by a widower grandfather and his 14-year-old granddaughter, Mija (An Seo Hyun), in mountainous, middle-of-nowhere South Korea. Now 10 years old, the tail-wagging Okja has twice the body size of a lumbering, humongous hippo and the docile personality of a puppy, along with the intelligence—and loyalty—of a collie. Mija has raised Okja, and together they manage the family farm. The latter belly flops into a pond to force fish out of the water, providing food for the family. Mija also knows her pet’s temperament: When she rubs Okja’s behind, it coaxes the animal to shoot out projectiles of poo, a trick that comes in handy later on.
The spokesperson for Mirando—a shrill, nerded-up Jake Gyllenhaal as zoologist Johnny Wilcox—and his TV crew arrive in the high elevation flushed and coated in sweat, yet ready to steal Okja away to the pig fest. Unbeknownst to Mija, the crew, backed up by reinforcements, hogtie the pet pig and jet her off to America. (Granddad has known of the plan all along.) Then the plus-sized porker and the teenager fight back. Their bond challenges the objectives of the TV crew, the Seoul police force, and the corporate machinations of Mirando.
Though some of the duo’s battles with the baddies are straight out of a Hollywood movie, Boon refrains from depending on the action sequences to move the story along; instead, Mija’s efforts to bring Okja home drive the film. Her singular focus remains uncompromised. The same, however, can’t be said of the adults, even those who try to aid Okja and Mija, such as the Animal Liberation Front, headed by Jay (Paul Dano), who has the most calming voice amid the mayhem. Boon builds suspense straightforwardly. In a plan to free Okja from captivity, Jay assures Mija the plot will go as clockwork—but he adds that no matter what happens, Mija should never look back. The audience knows why Jay is trying to protect the teen, and you don’t have to be a betting man to guess if she turns around or not.
As she proved in Hail, Caesar!, dual roles are Swinton’s forte, whether as the chirpy Lucy, who has the cheerleading spunk of a teenager (and braces, to boot), or her more controlled, frumpy archnemesis, sister Nancy. (Swinton is one of the film’s producers.) Only Gyllenhaal tries too hard at quirkiness, straining while the rest of the cast goes with the flow.
Netflix is actually an ideal home for this film, which is itself a type of hybrid. Okja would be a challenge to market for a theatrical release, and could conceivably get lost in theaters after not finding an audience in its first week. Is it a kids’ film? Well, yes to a point, until the graphic killing of animals begins, as well as other acts of violence. And the F-bombs dropped by Swinton’s Lucy push the movie more toward adults. On Netflix, the film will be far more accessible to its various audiences and not to have to be targeted toward a specific demographic. Like Okja, the movie’s a rare animal that should be able to find its way.