This latest movie release on Netflix is the surprising (or maybe not surprising) must-watch. Okja may at first seem like a children’s adventure movie, but it digs deep into our hearts. Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho’s sixth feature film is a story of a lifelong friendship between a child and a larger than life creature.
Bong Joon Ho ( Snowpiercer , The Host ) begins with the gentlest of premises—the bond between man and animal—and ultimately creates a distinct and layered vision of the world that addresses the animal inside us all.
Film Synopsis: For 10 idyllic years, young Mija (An Seo Hyun) has been caretaker and constant companion to Okja—a massive animal and an even bigger friend—at her home in the mountains of South Korea. But that changes when a family-owned multinational conglomerate Mirando Corporation takes Okja for themselves and transports her to New York, where image obsessed and self-promoting CEO LUCY MIRANDO (Tilda Swinton) has big plans for Mija’s dearest friend. With no particular plan but single-minded in intent, Mija sets out on a rescue mission, but her already daunting journey quickly becomes more complicated when she crosses paths with disparate groups of capitalists, demonstrators and consumers, each battling to control the fate of Okja…while all Mija wants to do is bring her friend home.
The director himself remembers what had inspired him to create this film. “I was was in Seoul and saw an unusual, very interesting looking animal on the street. It was huge, but it looked very shy and introverted. It had a cute face. At that moment, I made up my mind to make a movie. That was the beginning of the inspiration for Okja. Later, when I was preparing the movie Snowpiercer, it become a scenario, and I made sketches: a little girl and a strange animal.” He explained in the film’s production notes.
“Okja is ultimately a story about the relationship between animals and humans,” Bong Joon Ho continues. “All of my films have different stories, and some might share common themes, but as a storyteller, I want to explore new worlds. This is my first film that the main character is a child, and the story is focused on the child’s perspective.
“Some have commented that my film structure is like the game hide and seek. For example, a story about looking for the killer in Mother, a daughter in The Host , the engine in the front of the train and the creator, Wilford, in Snowpiercer . I think Okja has a similar storyline—Mija looking for Okja, her best friend. That is the biggest part of the story. This girl, Mija, raised in the woods, has never been to the city, has never seen the real world. She is the representation of purity. And now, here she is in this world, looking for her friend.”
Producer and collaborator Dooho Choi recalls, “Director Bong said he was considering doing a movie about a young girl from the country in South Korea going to New York on a wild adventure while we were in pre-production on Snowpiercer , in 2011. Then later, in 2013, when we were in Seoul for the premiere, we spent the day with Tilda—afterwards, on the way to the airport, he shared these sketches of what would become Mija and Okja in the woods and first described the story to us. From that moment on, it became an ongoing collaboration and discussion to develop the story and the script.”
Tilda Swinton’s character, Lucy Mirando, is so different from what we’ve seen from her. It’s a deliciously wicked self-conscious persona. Her character heads the Mirando Corporation that was originally a chemistry company that became globally recognized. But Lucy wants to make it appear environmentally friendly.
“Lucy is the sort of PR-obsessed, very white-teethed, white-dressed, pizzazzy television personality aspect of ruling the world. Lucy went to a liberal college. She’s trying to do something different. She’s aware of the fact that she has inherited a really terrible, really toxic company with a really damaged reputation. Her father was a proper monster—I mean, he was the guy who created napalm. So, she’s trying to re-brand, re-boot and make nice and sell, sell, sell, while trying to gloss over all of the sins of the past. But, of course, she’s not as pure as her clinician’s outfit would let you think she was,” said Swinton, who also co-produces the film.
Part of the process, she explains, was watching as the writer/director executed his tightrope walk while balancing all of the aspects of the multifaceted story. Swinton states, “Mija and Okja’s is a true love story. It’s the love story at the heart of a love story film. They live in this divine nature entirely freely and happily, in a sort of blissful content. Of course, what Mija doesn’t know is that Okja’s only there for a bit—she’s been misled by her grandfather. He accepted money from the Mirando Corporation to raise Okja as part of a competition. She certainly doesn’t know that when they come with Dr. Johnny Wilcox to check on her, to see how she squares up, that she’s going to get taken away. It’s a real paradise before the Fall. It’s Eden, where they live. And their relationship is Eden, really. It’s a massive loss of innocence for her to realize that she’s been lied to by her grandfather and she’s just not going to accept that separation. She just sets off to find Okja, who’s been taken away in a big truck, and she somehow gets herself from the top of a mountain to Seoul, and then, New York.”
Casting the role of young Mija wasn’t easy. Director Bong explained that he didn’t have an idea of who that girls should be when he was writing the screenplay. “I met hundreds of girls during the auditions but An Seo Hyun is actually an actress who previously appeared in other projects – I remember her in a film called Monster and I was very impressed by her acting. She really demonstrated acting that was beyond what you would expect of a ‘child’ actress. There were a lot of important factors to consider, such as stunts, special effects, and visual effects, and so on, and she acted very well with al of these various departments.” said Boon. Swinton also described the young actor as a natural. “The relationship between her face and Okja‘s is such an organic and beautiful one, graphically. She’s perfect.”
Watch for Jake Gyllenhaal in his role as Dr. Johnny Wilcox who is sent to check on Okja. His character is a has-been zoologist host of an animal show and is the spokesperson for the Miranda Corporation.
Where did the name Okja come from? Director Bong describes “Okja” as being an old-fashioned name, a combination of Japanese Kanji, and a nickname that would have been common during the Japanese Colonial Era in Korea. “These are names that the young people who had them, probably wouldn’t like very much. It is playground slang, and a bit mean—blame Mija’s grandfather, Heebong, who gave it to her. It is his fault.”
Okja is now streaming on Netflix worldwide.
(parental warning: violence and swear words! older kids will probably be okay)
Here is the official trailer…