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Okja

Year: 2017
Production Co: Kate St Picture Company
Studio: Netflix
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Writer: Joon-ho Bong/Jon Ronson
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Steven Yuen, Giancarlo Espisito, Jake Gyllenhaal, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall

I'm starting to think Netflix movies are cursed. While its series like Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things and House of Cards are all extremely high quality, know (or invent) the notion of genre very well and are all very well structured, it seems like whatever mandate creative head Ted Sarandos holds over feature length projects goes awry.

Okja, like Special Correspondents and War Machine before it (I know there have been plenty more Netflix originals but they're the high profile ones I've seen), feels like it started out as a good idea but ended up kind of a mess.

The good idea here is using a friendship between a young girl and a giant, genetically engineered pig to comment on the brutally inhumane economics of farming meat for human consumption.

Perky Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of a global food supplier, makes a grand statement to move her company away from the legacy of cruelty and mistreatment it fostered under her father's leadership. She introduces a program that's created 12 genetically engineered pigs, billeted with select farmers all over the world who'll grow them to maturity, after which they'll become the vanguard of a new food source in a protein-stressed world.

But ten years later, little Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), living with her grandfather and the now-giant pig whom she calls Okja in the rural backwoods of South Korea, doesn't really know and certainly doesn't care about any food program or genetic testing. All she cares about is running, swimming and frolicking in the woods of her modest mountain home with her giant friend.

When the company comes to collect, Mija doesn't accept it, fleeing to Seoul after Okja to rescue him. And she's not the only one on the case. A band of militant animal rights activist led by J (Paul Dano) are also on Okja's trail to bust her and others like her out of captivity, and Mija reluctantly teams up with them to try to find and rescue her friend.

And all the while, Lucy and her cadre of top advisors (including Giancarlo Esposito from Breaking Bad as what appears to be a corporate fixer) try to get ahead of the brewing PR storm.

Most cineliterate audiences raved about Pan's Labyrinth for successfully blending the fantastical of the young hero Ofelia's world and the brutal reality of Franco's World War II-era Spain but I never thought the two enmeshed very well, and I feel the same way here. There's a movie somewhere that successfuly blends an ET-like story of friendship between a kid and an incredible creature and a socially conscious satire about the way we treat animals for food, but this isn't it.

It might be that the script, by director Joon-ho Bong and Jon Ronson, was fine, and that something in the emotional timbre or even the transitions between scenes wrangled by Bong screwed up the flow, or it might just be that it was wrong on the page from the get go. Either way, almost nothing about the story works.

Some scenes and ideas – like the love story between Mija and Okja – are okay enough by themselves, but there's not a single scene, character, emotional beat or subplot that feels it belongs with anything else in the movie.

Part of it is huge problems with pacing. An argument in a corporate boardroom high above the city between Lucy and her top lieutenants not only goes on way too long, it feels like it was the first workshopped rehearsal of the scene before they decided on the elements that were and weren't working.

There's also an awful and frankly bizarre allusion to pig rape that seems to serve no purpose except to reassure you you're not watching a kids' movie, and like everything else in Okja it feels jarring, out of place, and with no idea what it's supposed to do in relation to everything else.

Actors often want to work with a given director simply to be associated with his or her reputation and its reflected glory, and when it comes to the Chris Nolans or Martin Scorseses of the world we can all be sure they'll be swimming in critical plaudits before long.

But Okja is a reminder that when an actor signs on it's a complete gamble how the end product will turn out. They show up on the day and deliver a line, and while they might make creative choices to give it a few different ways, the director and editor will decide what kind of performance will make it into the final cut long after they've gone on to their next gig.

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