Criterion Review: OKJA 4K (2017)

The last of Bong Joon-Ho’s filmography finally arrives on physical media in a stellar UHD package

In distant 2007, the multinational conglomerate Mirando sends a series of genetically enhanced Superpigs worldwide to be raised by various unique cultures. A decade later, Mija (Hyun Ahn-Seo), the granddaughter of a farmer selected in South Korea, has formed an unbreakable bond with her towering super-pig, Okja. A dazzling visual hybrid of a hippo, pig, and Totoro, Okja is the eight-foot-tall pet we all wish we had. Mija and Okja spend their days lazing on the Korean mountainsides, without a care in the world–until Mirando comes calling, heralded by nature TV personality Dr. Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Steve Irwin analog seemingly amped up on uppers and helium. Okja is spirited away to be paraded in New York City before an inevitable final trip to the slaughterhouse…so Mija embarks in fearless pursuit to save her friend, leaping onto mack trucks and barely dodging narrow tunnel tops with reckless abandon.

Mija’s relentless dedication makes her a sensation the world over, attracting the attention of Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) and her corporate team, as well as a chapter of the radical animal rights organization ALF (Paul Dano, Lily Collins, Steven Yeun, et al). Everyone sees Mija as the perfect PR tool to achieve their wildly divergent goals. With Okja’s survival hanging in the balance, Mija places a fraying trust in the ALF–but quickly realizes nothing is as it seems in a globetrotting, madcap adventure that only a director like Bong Joon-Ho can conjure.

Full of the signature whirlwinds of genre and tone that make his films genres unto themselves, Bong Joon-Ho’s second international collaboration dovetailed with the peak of Netflix’s unrestrained approach to granting their hired auteurs near-total creative freedom. Hot off the heels of Bong’s English breakthrough, Snowpiercer, Okja was a sprawling production with an international crew (notable for separate teams of production and costume designers within their respective countries) and a star-power cast that altogether bested Director Bong’s previous film’s size and scope. Not to mention, Okja had financial backing that sought to augment Bong’s strengths as a director rather than hinder them. Where Snowpiercer suffered Weinstein-era test screenings and minor releases, Okja was simultaneously released worldwide, with a budget that then made it the most expensive film in South Korean history. On the other hand, Okja arrived during Netflix’s own upending of traditional distribution models, which saw distributors, critics, and others in the film scene retaliate against a growing trend of anti-theatrical distribution. It would be one of only two Netflix-produced films to compete for the Palme d’Or before the streamer was banned from competition entirely.

Five years later, in a wildly different movie-going world, Okja has become the latest entry in Netflix’s lucrative partnership with Criterion. With how its existence has come to be defined by the tumultuous evolutions of the film industry, Okja’s place in cinematic history has come to mirror the perils of its central creature. It’s a labor of love by its creator that quickly became mired in controversy over what purpose and function the film was supposed to play within the culture it inhabited.

Even separate from its cinematic surroundings, Okja is a profanely playful film among the best of Bong Joon-Ho, conducting a multi-prong assault on performative activism through the eyes of a child and her sincere quest to save the creature she loves. Mija’s earnest journey to reunite with Okja quickly becomes a pawn for two organizations who couldn’t be more alike if they tried. Both the ALF and Mirando claim they want to better mankind–ending world hunger or ending cruelty to animals. However, both wage their own kinds of terrorism (environmental in Mirando’s case, social in the ALF’s) and are reticent to acknowledge their complicity in whatever negative consequences they bring about. Mija’s unerring, action-oriented sincerity proves a potent wake-up call for Mirando and the ALF. She exposes not just the lies both groups tell each other, but the ones they tell themselves–and forces Mirando and ALF to confront just how deep in their self-righteous sacrifice of others they’re willing to go to achieve their goals.

While the film revels in the hypocrisy of human nature like Bong’s other films, Okja doesn’t seek to stir up controversy and leave audiences hungry without providing answers of its own. Mija’s forced embrace of the give-and-take of capitalist society to save her friend–and only her friend–is among one of Bong’s greatest hollow victories. Like Bong’s subsequent film Parasite, Okja’s final barbs point toward how we as individuals can tragically only do so much against an unfeeling society-scale corporate machine. However, Director Bong validates and encourages Mija’s brazen, havoc-wreaking fight for friendship and kindness; just because people may monopolize the status quo doesn’t mean we are wholly powerless to change things. Like The Host, Snowpiercer, and Parasite, Okja fiercely calls for sincere action to fuel earnest societal change.

With this release, Okja receives the same amount of signature Criterion care as The Irishman, Roma, Beasts of No Nation, Minding the Gap, Cold War, and others. It joins a newly emerging canon of films whose legacies will far outlast the game-changing debates on the future of cinema that their origins once sparked.


Criterion presents Okja in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 in both Dolby Vision HDR for the 4K UHD and 1080p HD for the Blu-ray Disc, sourced from a digital intermediate of the original ARRIRAW 6.5K camera files and supervised by cinematographer Darius Khondji. Both discs use a Dolby Atmos audio track (5.1 Surround only available for the DVD), which is remastered from the original digital audio files. English subtitles for non-English segments are provided for the feature and Special Features, while English SDH are also provided for the feature.

Okja was the first of Bong’s films to use both the Arri Alexa 65 as well as Dolby Atmos, both of which are expertly utilized to craft an immersive experience for home viewing. The pristine 6.5K raw materials and consistent picture quality that physical media provides lead Criterion’s UHD of Okja to have the best possible presentation for a film that was previously relegated to streaming. Bong’s signature focus on lush or cold contrasting textures and settings are well-represented across both the UHD and Blu-ray, from the vast mountainous forests of the South Korean countryside to the sky-less, tombstone-like cityscapes of New York City. Okja herself also looks better than expected after five years of evolving VFX technology, with all of her physical tics and expressions taking on new life with clearer picture quality.

The disc’s Dolby Atmos track is fittingly well-designed for a Bong feature, with as many channels as possible used to separate the detailed sound work into a sonorous and captivating rhythm. Like on Criterion’s previous Parasite release, composer Jang Jae-Il’s score is a major highlight throughout, using everything from emotional guitars and percussion to a real barn-burner of a Balkan orchestral track.

Special Features

Note: The package’s special features are on the film’s accompanying Blu-ray Disc.

  • Completing the Journey: A new conversation between director/co-writer Bong Joon-Ho and producer Dooho Choi, reflecting on Okja’s origins, the assembly of the film’s international cast and crew (and the unique division of responsibilities between them), the real-life references for Okja (manatees, pigs, hippos, and the VFX designers’ dogs), as well as the delicate nuance in how the film depicts the rationalization and idealism of the film’s conflicting characters. Of note, Director Bong notes his equal fascination and terror at the visuals inside meatpacking plants, wanting to be honest to those visuals but also to employ equal care in depicting those who are employed by that industry as parts of a larger, desensitized capitalist system (albeit with noble, though dubious goals of sustainability). There’s also a direct reckoning for Bong as far as his ability to depict resistance towards capitalism within filmmaking, “a form of art that requires the most capital.” Towards the end, Director Bong and Producer Choi discuss Okja’s status as a film perpetually caught in the theatrical vs. streaming debate, and the definitive closure provided by releasing Okja on physical media so long after its original streaming release.
  • Creating Life: A new audio interview with Okja cinematographer Darius Khondji, discussing the technical logistics of shooting Okja (Bong’s first film shot digitally), highlighting the beauty and ugliness of the film’s contrasting locations in South Korea and America, and the important link between the design of the film’s cinematography and the production design by Lee Ha Jun and Kevin Thompson.
  • A New Form of Love: A new interview with star Ahn-Seo Hyun on her experience making her debut film, the challenges of acting with a digital creature for the majority of the film, and a reflection on the film’s themes of love, environmentalism, and other social issues. Also included is Hyun’s original screen test with director Bong in its entirety.
  • One More Time: A new, rare interview with actor Byun Hee-Bong conducted by Bong Joon-Ho, with the pair reflecting on their extensive collaborations together between Bong’s debut Barking Dogs Never Bite, Memories of Murder, The Host, and Okja.
  • A Real Animal: VFX supervisor Erik-Jan de Boer and animation supervisor Stephen Clee discuss the organic development of Okja’s design, from initial sketches, logistics employed during production, and how the effects crew paid attention to the minute details of Okja’s physicality and the actors’ interaction with the creature–notably in creating multiple puppets for the actors to interact with (shoutout to the Okja butt).
  • Creative Collaboration: Production designer Kevin Thompson and costume designers Choi Se-Yeon and Catherine George discuss how their contributions to the film accentuate both the deep cultural divide within Okja’s bi-continental setting, as well as the division in approaches to capitalism by each of the characters in their embracing or rejection of natural elements.
  • Netflix Featurettes documenting the behind-the-scenes of Okja, divided into Director’s Diary, On Okja, Mija, Visual Effects, and Dolby Atmos.
  • Web Videos created by Netflix for Okja’s original release to supplement the world of Okja, featuring commercials for the Mirando Corporation and response anti-commercials by the ALF.
  • Teaser / Trailer for Okja’s original theatrical/streaming release. Of note, the trailer contains one of the best usages of The Mamas and The Papas’ Dedicated to the One I Love since Charlie McDowell’s 2014 film of the same name.
  • Essay: Critic and Bong historian Karen Han discusses Okja’s complex themes regarding capitalism, environmentalism, and the increasingly dubious roles ethics may play in regards to both, especially in relation to the majority of Director Bong’s filmography, in which characters go to great lengths to achieve what they want and suffer great losses, to little impact on the social systems that are the roots of their suffering.

Okja is now available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

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