Before writer/director Bong Joon Ho would go on to win Best International Feature, Best Director, and Best Picture for his film Parasite (2019) at the 92nd Academy Awards, Bong Joon Ho was awarded Best Motion Picture in the Foreign Language category and, within his speech, said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” His comment isn’t a slight against those who don’t use subtitles, nor is it a suggestion that subtitled films are somehow better or more elite than those in your native tongue, he’s merely stating how an audience member’s cinematic experience opens by moving beyond your comfort zone. Bong’s been making movies since 1994 with his first feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite, releasing in 2000. Since his feature-length debut, his filmography has expanded to include Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Mother (2009), Snowpiercer (2013), and, my favorite, the Netflix distributed Okja (2017). Now, for the first time, audiences can own a physical copy of the streaming giant’s film thanks to the Criterion Collection, complete with interviews with cast and crew members, as well as Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos on the 4K UHD edition.
If you’d like to learn about Okja without spoilers, please head to the initial Netflix spoiler-free release review. Moving forward, there will be discussion of specific narrative-based details within going forward.
2007, New York, and Mirando Corporation CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces to the press the discovery of a superpiglet in Chili which Mirando has acquired and reproduced 26 offspring. These offspring are to be distributed to farmers within 26 countries in which Mirando has offices, the idea being that the company can monitor the growth of each via local methods do determine the best way to raise each pig. In 10 years, one will be crowned Best Superpig. During the 10 year period in which Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her grandfather Hee Bong (Byun Hee Bong) raise theirs, whom they name Okja, an incredible bond is formed, prompting Mija to push her grandfather to purchase Okja from Mirando. To her shock, Hee Bong never asked and Mirando reclaims their property. Determined to get her friend back, Mija leaves their mountain farm on a rescue mission, following Ojka as she travels to Seoul and on to New York in America and unwittingly finding herself stuck between the duplicitous Mirando Corporation and animal rights activists the Animal Liberation Front (A.L.F.) possessing their own agenda.
More often than not, what makes a film subjectively great is the way in which it resonates on repeat watches. Sometimes a film becomes more deep, its artistry more easily absorbed (RRR (2022)), while discrepancies or issues rise to the surface (Spectre (2015)). For example, there’s a moment when the VFX in Okja doesn’t hold up, the look of Dr. Johnny Wilcox’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) hand grotesque with falsehood as it slides across Okja’s skin in their first meeting. Despite the beautiful opening sequence, watching Okja and Mija lackadaisically wander the mountains around the farm, cementing their profound bond for the audience, this single moment reminds us that Okja isn’t real at all. At the time, this was hardly noticeable, but, now, roughly five years later, the integration between real and fiction isn’t quite as smooth. That said, the rest of Bong’s film — in direction, in production design, in costuming, in performance, in narrative conceit and execution — remains as powerful now as it did then, if not moreso. Time, actually, has given Okja far more depth, allowing audiences to see the film beyond a simply message of “don’t eat meat” or “don’t trust capitalists,” and to see that the narrative is an exploration of honesty, balance in all things, and consideration.
The fantastic essay from critic and essayist Karen Han explores this, highlighting how the film doesn’t suggest that audiences should become a vegetarian post-adventure, merely that one should think about the mechanized process of meat production. Two other items she discusses that stand out on additional watches: the use of language as manipulator and how the ones to trust aren’t necessarily those one might expect. In his Golden Globes speech, Bong comments on how being open will increase your worldview. In this film, conceived nearly a decade before his win, the characters speak either English or Korean, something which gets used against Mija who, for most of the film, only speaks Korean. Her trust is violated by Steven Yeun’s K, a member of A.L.F., when he purposefully mistranslates a conversation between Mija and Paul Dano’s A.L.F. leader Jay. Later, when one of the Mirando Corporation people notice she has a book to learn English, he comments to the room Mija’s in to watch what they say because she may understand. Duplicity is all around Mija in Lucy Mirando’s play for positive corporate press and it’s the breaking of the language barrier that grants Mija power. Language and lies is a major subtext with all the characters, except Mija and Okja, throughout the film as just about everyone presents actions different from their words. Our introduction to Lucy is that she’s the kinder face of the company, that everything the superpig program is doing is eco-friendly, animal friendly, and consumer friendly, yet her world is far more dangerous and treacherous than former CEO Nancy’s (also Tilda Swinton). We discover this in the final moments of the film when Mija saves Okja’s life through capitalism, something which Nancy holds dear and can be trusted to adhere to. This final scene, in all its physical and emotional brutality, is resolved not by chase, not by pleading, not by any other action than commerce. Well before audiences gave glory to the bounteous wifi, Bong explored the complexity of commerce as tool and weapon to devastating degrees. Never has a purchase held so much tension, while also feeling like a foregone conclusion when one knows the players and their views on ethics.
Unsurprisingly, even on a repeat watch, the slow march from the Mirando meat processing facility as Mija and Okja leave, observing two other superpigs desperately try to save their offspring from the cattle gun initiates tears through the invocation of inevitable slaughter of these personified animals and the helplessness to save more than Okja. As the two walk away, one can’t help but wonder if on 25 other farms, there are children rending their bodies with grief because they lacked the fortitude to go after the Mirando convoy as Mija did.
Considering the film’s been available on Netflix since 2017, there’s really no need to rehash the trauma any further. As such, let’s dig into the home release itself. The home review copy sent by Criterion is the Blu-ray edition, so I cannot speak to the 4K UHD edition outside of what’s mentioned in the liner notes.
According to the liner notes, the 4K digital master for this edition was created from a digital intermediate of the original ARRIRAW 6.5K camera files. The master was made with supervision from cinematographer Darius Khondji and Bong and the 4k UHD edition is fully-approved by Bong. The Blu-ray edition is presented in high-definition standard dynamic range, while the 4K UHD edition utilizes Dolby Vision with high dynamic range. The original Dolby Atmos soundtrack featured with the 4K UHD and Blu-ray editions was remastered from the original digital master audio files, but be advised that the DVD edition is only 5.1. Doing a comparison of the Netflix stream and the on-disc Blu-ray presentation, the picture and sound are improved, though the sound is far more noticeable an improvement. Again, the decompression of visual and auditory data via the home release will almost always offer a more impressive home viewing experience over streaming, though one’s Internet bandwidth and home set-up may make the difference negligible.
As with most Criterion releases, what will truly draw Okja enthusiasts in are the six brand-new featurettes and the collection of original marketing materials, totally over two hours. Bong sits down with frequent collaborator producer Dooho Choi in the 30-minute+ “Completing the Journey” to discuss the inspiration for Okja, how they developed Okja herself, who on their crew they’d worked with before, and other aspects of production. It’s a pretty casual interview given their relationship which makes it feel quite warm and inviting. In the nine-minute “Creating Life,” the focus is turned on Khondji, who guides us through his decision to use the ARRIRAW 6.5K camera, Bong’s process of using storyboards, the emotional impact of shifting camera styles to evoke the difference between mountain life and city life, as well as how cinematography and the other departments support each other to craft the world of Okja. A lovely journey into the past occurs with An Seo Hyun via the two-part featurette “A New Form of Love” which includes a present-day interview with the actor looking back on her experience, as well as the screen test shot by Bong himself. The 18-minute “One More Time” is another actor-focused featurette, as Bong sits down with another frequent collaborate, actor Byun Hee Bong. They discuss Byun Hee’s filmography, his shift in perception regarding film work versus television, and quite a bit more in this charming conversation between the two. The 16-minute “A Real Animal” offers a behind the scenes look at creating Okja from the perspective of VFX supervisor Erik-Jan de Boer and animation supervision Stephen Clee, who walk us through everything from the initial design process and the tweaks to get Okja to her film version, how they brought her to life on-set, and how they brought the significant challenges of the script from imagination to reality. One of the bigger challenges audiences may not notice is the almost constant touching between Mija and Okja as a sign of their intimacy and comfort. This is discussed quite a bit in several of the featurettes, but it comes up here as something Boer and Clee had to navigate how to account for the necessary weight, shadows, and other aspects of how a real Okja would react in physical spaces to Mija. Lastly, in the nearly 20-minute “Creative Collaborations,” home viewers are treated to a deep dive into the narrative significance of production design and costuming as lead by co-production designer Kevin Thompson and co-costume designers Choi Seyeon and Catherine George. Like Khondji before them, there’s a discussion about how one aspect of production informs the other, while also shedding light on the meaning behind the tiniest details of the characters and sets.
Beyond these are five Netflix-based featurettes, all of which are available to view on YouTube, as well as the film teaser, trailer, and various in-film web videos, for those who can’t get enough of Mirando or the A.L.F.
My version of cinephile presents as a physical media lover. Unlike streaming or digital options, there’s no license to maintain, there’s no barriers for enjoyment, all I need is electricity, a tv, and appropriate player to enjoy the film. That more films from streamers are being released on physical formats is an absolutely joy so that films like Okja have a chance at greater preservation and lasting enjoyment versus being lost in the vast content space of a streamer’s library. Criterion’s rendition of Okja is not just a lovely package with excellent bonus materials, it’s also an opportunity to enjoy the film with enhanced picture and sound due to the lack of video and audio compression that’s almost always inevitable with streamers. Because of this, it’s hard not to heartily recommend this edition.
Okja Special Features:
- 4K digital master, approved by director Bong Joon Ho, with Dolby Atmos sound on the Blu-ray and 4K UHD editions
- In the 4K UHD edition: One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and one Blu-ray with the film and special features
- Completing the Journey, a new conversation between Bong and producer Dooho Choi (33:33)
- Creating Life, an interview with cinematography cinematographer Darius Khondji (9:07)
- A New Form of Love: Part 1, an interview with actor An Seo Hyun (10:54)
- A New Form of Love: Part 2, actor An Seo Hyun’s screen test shot by director Bong Joon Ho (5:19)
- One More Time, an interview with actor Byun Hee Bong (18:11)
- A Real Animal, an interview with visual effects supervisor Erik-Jan de Boer and animation supervisor Stephen Clee (16:06)
- Creative Collaborations, an interview with co-production designer Kevin Thompson and co-costume designers Choi Seyeon and Catherine George (19:57)
- Okja Teaser (0:51)
- Okja Trailer (2:10)
- Netflix Featurettes:
- Director’s Diary (1:53)
- On Okja (2:29)
- Mija (1:13)
- Visual Effects (3:29)
- Dolby Atmos (1:53)
- Six (6) Web Promos:
- Superpig Infographic
- Mirando Infomerical
- “Deserves Less” Spot
- Accolades Spot
- My Okja
- Mirando is Murder
- English subtitle translation and English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic Karen Han
- New cover by Michael Boland
Available on 4K UHD and Blu-ray from Criterion Collection July 5th, 2022.