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Cannes

Okja draws E.T. comparisons amid Netflix controversy at Cannes

Monster movie earns solid reviews on the Croisette

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Bong Joon-ho has phoned home with his latest film, which, in this case, sees him taking up residence in the good graces of international movie critics.

With a Netflix premiere slated for June 28, Okja might not be headed for the Oscar race (the platform’s prior awards hopeful, Beasts of No Nation, failed to catch on with Academy voters in 2015), but the Korean auteur’s new movie is drawing comparisons to E.T. as tensions over the industry’s gradual embracing of streaming-based platforms take center stage at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

Following its first press screening Friday morning on the Croisette (which reportedly saw the Grand Lumiére auditorium projecting the film’s initial moments in the incorrect aspect ratio), critics have singled out the filmmaker’s singular touch on what could have been a rote rehash of the steady “meat-is-murder” social mentality.

“The movie’s underlying premise — child bonds with otherworldly beast and defends it from cruel adults — easily calls to mind E.T. or Pete’s Dragon, but Bong bends the formula into his own agenda,” Eric Kohn writes for IndieWire. “Okja fires in a lot of directions, but finds its way to a strong payoff; despite an underwhelming confrontation in its final moments, it arrives at a thoughtful epilogue that brings the drama full circle — and places it within the consistent fixation of Bong’s filmography: Life goes on, but the specter of bigger threats to Okja’s kind remain, far beyond the reaches of a single courageous girl. From his early comic-suspense films to his later spectacles, Bong’s movies deny the easy satisfaction of an overarching victory, instead suggesting that you can’t save a world that may have already doomed itself.”

Variety‘s Peter Debruge calls the film’s central relationship between the titular beast and a young girl, Mija (An Seo Hyun), “charming,” and again likens the film to Disney’s 2016 live-action Pete’s Dragon remake and Hayao Miyazaki’s classic My Neighbor Totoro “(right down to the way Mija naps on the giant beast’s belly), featuring great visual effects work on the creature, designed to look adorably dog-like.” He continues: “Certainly, this is a far different kind of creature feature from Bong’s The Host, although audiences can’t help but recognize the same mix of over-the-top flamboyance and reductive philosophy.”

Okja, about a greedy corporation (fronted by Tilda Swinton) who seeks to use the titular beast, which has befriended a young girl, as a means to facilitate a new line of mass-marketed meat (a whacky yet “deeply humane” concept, according to Vulture‘s Emily Yoshida), screened for journalists almost 11 years to the day after its maker — renowned for crafting both high-concept thrillers (Snowpiercer) and taut, crime-fueled dramas (Mother) — launched The Host (also about a fantastical creature, albeit one of the bloodthirsty, menacing breed) at Cannes on May 21, 2006.

Whereas The Host went on to amass a worldwide following (including a massive $64 million in South Korea, becoming the country’s fourth highest-earning movie in history), the auteur’s latest project, however, enters the fray as theatrical distributors and film professionals (and even local exhibitor guilds) clash with streaming giants like Amazon and Netflix over the latter’s new take on the traditional release model.

Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories are Netflix’s first films to have been accepted into Cannes’ main competition slate, which seemingly drew the ire of 2017 jury president Pedro Almodovar, who denounced Netflix at the top of the festival earlier this week, further noting that he doesn’t “perceive the Palme d’Or [should be] given to a film that is then not seen on the big screen.” Fellow jury member Will Smith (who is starring in an upcoming Netflix release, Bright) offered a different take: ““I have a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old and a 24-year-old at home. They go to the movies twice a week, and they watch Netflix… There’s very little cross between going to the cinema and watching what they watch on Netflix.”

“How can this movie’s producer — Netflix — ever be content with just letting it go on the small screen? Apart from everything else, the digital effects are spectacular and the visual images beautiful. It’s a terrible waste to shrink them to an iPad,” Peter Bradshaw says in his five-star review for The Guardian. [It’s] a lovely family action-adventure about a girl and the giant hippoesque pig, named Okja, that she has come to love like family. This exciting, charming, sweet-natured movie gives its audience heartmeltingly tender moments showing us their magical life together in the Korean mountains. Then it whooshes us to New York City and a world of cynicism, menace and danger. This movie just rattles along with glorious storytelling gusto in the spirit of Roald Dahl, E.T. creator Melissa Mathison and Dodie Smith, author of 101 Dalmatians.”

Other critics, like The Hollywood Reporter‘s Stephen Dalton, were less impressed with the film.

“An ungainly mix of benign monster movie, action comedy and coming-of-age fable, Okja marks South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s contentious debut in the official Cannes competition selection,” he notes. “This effects-driven ensemble piece is a tonally uneven affair, cluttered with tone-deaf dialogue and crudely sketched characters that recall Luc Besson at his most obtuse. But such minor flaws did not prevent Bong’s previous adventures in socially conscious sci-fi fantasy, notably The Host and Snowpiercer, from earning critical raves and healthy box office numbers.”

Regardless of how you choose to consume it, Okja is, by most critical accounts, worth the investment. Ahead of the film’s June 28 Netflix premiere date, read on for more Okja review excerpts below.

Eric Kohn (IndieWire)
“As with Snowpiercer, this is a story almost too eager to fire in multiple directions, sometimes with messy results, veering from broad satire to softer exchanges with little regard for finding balance between the two. The scheming ensemble behind the scenes at the Miranda Corporation — which also includes a quietly menacing Giancarlo Esposito and an underutilized Shirley Henderson — never come across as anything more than maniacal cartoons, but the bond between Mija and Okja is genuine, and the chase scenes are bracing to watch. Zipping along to a vibrant soundtrack, Bong crafts lively, action-packed moments that find the hulkish Okja careening through public spaces while people scramble around her. This includes one of the most striking moments in Bong’s entire career — a slow-mo battle set to John Denver’s ‘You Fill Up My Senses,’ which finds the ALF forming a wall of umbrellas to defend a cornered Okja while Mija cowers nearby.”

Peter Debruge (Variety)
“Whether genetically modified or not, most people don’t want to know where their food comes from, but Bong insists, creating a sequence that’s more frightening than anything in The Host. If Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was able to galvanize the public into insisting upon reform in the meat-packing industry, perhaps “Okja” could bring about change as well — though it’s important to remember that Sinclair was more concerned with the working conditions in such factories than the ethics of what we eat.”

Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)
“There is something inspired in the way the director handles the contrast between the bucolic paradise in which Mija and Okja have grown up together and the alien jungle of the big city. The narrative dynamic is comparable to King Kong in its way; but less adult and less obviously knowing. The scenes at the beginning where Mija loses her footing and Okja instinctively improvises a rescue are tremendously conceived. And the digital creation of Okja is itself brought off with terrific skill. The pure energy and likability of this film make it such a pleasure.”

Stephen Dalton (The Hollywood Reporter)
“Scripted by Bong, then adapted into English by British author and screenwriter Jon Ronson (Frank, The Men Who Stare at Goats), Okja is peppered with lost-in-translation lines and clunky tonal shifts. While the dialogue and themes are adult, the zany cartoon humor and fuzzy-warm feelgood elements seem to be pitched at pre-teens. Like the cumbersome hybrid animal at its heart, this beast is no beauty. But it is a technically impressive and boldly original statement from a rising Asian auteur with increasingly international ambitions.”

Emily Yoshida (Vulture)
“The film is packed with so many strange gems of moments, and while a few feel like Bong losing the plot (specifically any time Okja decides to loosen her bowels) it always snaps back together. By the time Mija and Dano’s crew find themselves at a hellish slaughterhouse, Bong’s no longer messing around, even if the victims in question are CGI hippos. For all its wackiness, Okja is also a deeply humane film. Even its final boss is never blown up to be any more than a garden-variety capitalist, which is, perhaps, the point. It also bears mentioning that Darius Khondji’s cinematography is a vivid delight, and like so many Netflix films, deserves to be seen properly on the big screen. But a theatrical release is no guarantee of that: even at the Cannes Film Festival, a veritable temple to cinema, the projection was improperly matted and had to be restarted after 10 minutes. It goes to show: no venue is perfect. But if you’re watching this on your couch, like 99 percent of Okja’s audience will be, check your aspect ratios. Translation is sacred.”

Jonathan Romney (Screen Daily)
“Okja is fun, if sometimes over-egged, as an adventure romp, but flounders in overstatement when it comes to satirical intent. It could be called either audacious or misjudged when the final act takes us to a factory farm for giant pigs, where the film startlingly turns into something between My Neighbor Totoro and Le Sang des Bêtes. This is the sort of moment that could be just too harrowing for younger viewers – and the same could be said for an episode of, no kidding, pig rape. As one character says of the new super-duper meat, ‘It’s all edible except for the squeal.’ Viewers may feel there’s rather more squeal here than they can easily swallow.” 

Zhuo-Ning Su (Awards Daily)
As proved in his critically acclaimed blockbusters The Host and most recently Snowpiercer, Bong knows what he’s doing when it comes to staging complex setpieces. With the help of legendary DP Darius Khondji and an excellent editing team, he pulls off a couple more sophisticated, breathtakingly sleek chase sequences here. Whether produced by a streaming service or not, the feeling of a quickened pulse and tingling sense of mischief at the sight of a giant pig wreaking havoc in the city is among the greatest pleasures cinema can offer. If the second half of Okja can’t quite keep up with the live wire act that is the first, it does serve up a sobering depiction of the carnivorous corporate culture of the day and the cruelty we inflict on animals on a daily basis. Less than subtle in their delivery for sure, but important reminders nonetheless. In terms of Oscars, this does not seem like a contender not only because of the Netflix-DNA but also its inherent populist appeal.”