Generally speaking, films are always intended to elicit a specific response from the audience. Whether they engage you intellectually, emotionally, or some usual combination therein, the very nature of the experience is manipulative. And yet, few fictional narratives aim to inspire an immediate change in your daily habits. Be that as it may, if one does not leave Okja, Bong Joon Ho’s impossible to categorize slice of fantasia, seriously contemplating becoming a vegan, then the movie did not fail them. It simply illuminated that this person lacked a soul to begin with.
A peculiar kind of wonderful that blends whimsy with the literal, and puts the pastoral in a hyper-modern context, Bong Joon Ho’s second Western film after the audacious Snowpiercer is an unusual project from the very beginning. Despite being a new movie from an internationally celebrated auteur, it is premiering on Netflix (much to the consternation of French audiences at this year’s Cannes Film Festival). And in spite of featuring some big American names among its cast like Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Steve Yeun, and Lily Collins, it is not a film so easily intended for Western consumption. In contrast to Snowpiercer, which was a proudly on-the-nose allegory about class inequality and that starred Marvel Studios’ Captain America, Okja is mainly about a Korean protagonist and her adoration for a pig. Any concessions to more Americanized storytelling techniques are thus frequently obligatory at best.
Okja is a formalist exercise not the least bit concerned with “realism” or grounding its titular super-pig in any kind of classical standard (i.e. it cares not if the pig’s CGI “doesn’t look real”). Nor is it much worried about upsetting some viewers with its broader tone, narrative jumps, or ultimately merciless condemnation of the meat industry. It’s a fairy tale about a girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her lovable super-pig Okja, a cross between Babe and Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. And like Winnie’s forest friends, Okja herself lights up the screen, from the agrarian heights of Korean mountains to the monstrous depths of New Jersey stockyards.
Set in a bizarre alternative to our world where genetic engineering is both further along and even less regulated, Lucy Mirando (Swinton) is the eccentric and PR-happy CEO of the Mirando Corporation. Somehow her fragile personality has survived sitting atop her father’s company and she claims she’s discovered a new kind of pig in Bolivia (but as her company is known for GMOs, so take a guess if that’s true). Having bred this economically friendly super-pig, she creates a contest wherein 10 different farmers from around the globe each try to raise the largest hog.
A decade later, the biggest of these becomes Okja, an exceedingly smart barnyard critter who is the only friend young Mija can rely on. While her grandfather cares for her, he also extols ambivalence to Mija’s concerns, particularly as he knows the Mirando corporation will take her pig. And they do eventually come one day bearing gifts, including the chance to be on television with bizarre American personality Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal). But no prizes or autographs impress Mija, particularly when the price is the theft of a family member.
So with steely precision, Mija sets out on her own to save Okja, first in Seoul and then in America. She tries to prevent Okja from becoming a television prize (or even bacon strips) and she’ll enjoy some major help from the Animal Liberation Front—think PETA if they operated with the expertise of James Bond’s MI6. They’re led by most of the rest of the American actors (Dano, Yeun, Collins), and they do want to unite Mija with her animal BFF… assuming it aligns with their own political aims for the world’s most famous swine.
While crafting Okja, its Korean director made a number of curious choices for the Netflix format. There are plot elements that normally would be treated as vital by American filmmakers—such as how a young farmgirl who conceivably has never left the mountains is able to walk to Seoul in a day—that are entirely ignored; there is little concern about whether the film’s sweet natured setting transitions smoothly into the broadly outrageous performances used to depict the Americans and English characters; and again the film shrugs at pedantic pleas for “reality” or “naturalism,” not with an 11-year-old is hanging from a cattle truck like she’s in an action movie.
Luckily, the film is stronger for it. More than just its topical, allegorical pieces, Okja acts as a full-blown fable about the nature we destroy and consume, and the absurdity with which we celebrate ourselves for it. The sequences around Mija’s farm are quiet and austere when Okja is revealed to have a hyper intelligence closer to that of a human than livestock. She cares for Mija and is actually able to problem-solve while aiding her human friend, which makes the implication of wanting to mass produce and devour pigs like her somehow crueler.
But for most of the movie, the glitziness of media personalities and the way they are wrangled by PR is treated as farce, with Gyllenhaal going especially big as some nightmarish amalgamation of Geraldo Rivera, Steve Irwin, and the Tokyo game show hosts from Sofia Coppola’s vision of hell. Loud and preening, Gyllenhaal informs the U.S. side of the piece as beyond heightened and is only matched by Swinton. The latter always inhabits her roles to perfection, and here she’s a train wreck of narcissism.
Her world, and not Mija’s, is one of bright pastel colors and glass doors, glowing LCD monitors and capitalist sponsored gaiety in empty parades. Yet slowly and surely, the rotund Okja is welcomed into heinous and real-life practices, such as the stabbing of animals to check the quality of meat while the creature is still alive. Soon, no one is pretending to have fun.
Despite its eccentricities, there are shades of real humanity throughout. Paul Dano’s secret agent humanitarian is shockingly earnest in his desire to improve the lives of animals—even if by violent means. Further, young Seo-hyun plays her role with tender authenticity, anchoring the movie’s outlandishness in a truthful core.
It somehow mixes well into a bizarre and moving film. The sentimentality in Okja’s third act hits the viewer’s head with the nuance of a pollaxe and proves just as stunning. For here is an oddity of styles and cultures, and a mishmash of sensibilities and aesthetics. It is also very, very effective in creating an adoration for a pig made of ones and zeroes. There might be a few tears in there too.