Bright colors, quirky characters, and at the center of it a super pig. Okja is a visual delight but offers something deeper below its surface.
Okja is a super pig. Yes, that’s what they call her species in the eponymous film. This animal, which is double the size of a hippo, slobbers uncontrollably, and has a propensity to fart — sometimes on command — is also a gentle and loyal giant. That’s clear from Okja’s relationship with Mija, a farm girl in Korea who has grown up with Okja from when she was a toddler. It’s the setup for the classic kid and their animal best friend movie that we’ve seen countless times — Charlotte’s Web, Free Willy, etc. However, this is certainly not one of those movies.
At the center of Okja is darker themes that can be summed up in the opening scene. Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the new CEO of the Mirando Corporation, announces in a bright and flashy presentation in 2007 the company’s newest venture: the super pig. Framed as the next step of meat production, the corporation isn’t holding back any expense in promoting the product — flashy graphics, a room full of press. However, the centerpiece is a 10-year contest that involves the company sending twenty-six of the super pigs to locations throughout the globe to see which farmer raises the best pig.
However, Mija doesn’t seem to understand that the company has darker intentions as its end game. Specifically, that the super pigs are going to slaughtered and eaten. For all the glitz and glamor that the Mirando Corporation has, they are simply covering up that fact that they are the embodiment of corporate greed. Swinton — following up her incredible performance in the director’s last film Snowpiercer — acts as the human stand-in for the company. However, her character’s journey is a lot deeper than that. This campaign is her chance to finally crawl out from under the shadow of her grandfather, father, and menacing twin sister (also played by Swinton), who have all taken the reigns of the company at some point. Her complete lack of empathy for the creatures and Mija stem from money and success blinding her.
The opening act of the film is a surreal study of a human, their companion, and their relationship. Mija and Okja aren’t human and pet. They’re truly best friends. Okja is as loyal and caring for Mija as she is for her. More importantly, though, Okja’s intelligence and compassion are on full display. It shows that there is a soul behind her eyes. However, that all comes crashing down when a caustic television veterinarian (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) comes to retrieve Okja for the media rounds before ultimately becoming just a product in a grocery store.
As the setting shifts from Seoul to New York, we are introduced to the members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) — led by Paul Dano, who gives a marvelous performance — a PETA like organization that tries help Mija get Okja back. However, they, like Mirando, have ulterior motives as well. After the first act, which plays a lot like the dreamscapes of a Hayao Miyazaki film, the rest of the movie works best when the ALF or Tilda Swinton is on screen. Both sides are at times morally compromised. However, they also have a humanity that makes you understand the dilemma’s they face. That’s not to say that the movie is constantly bleak or overly serious. In the end, Bong Joon-Ho is a director that finds the humor in even the darkest of topics. For example, one of the members of ALF is constantly fainting because he eats as little as possible to leave the smallest carbon footprint. How far do you go to exemplify your ideals?
However, there are moments when the movie doesn’t work. Specifically, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance often takes you out of the world. The world that the movie takes place in is surreal, but his performance is on another planet. From his high squeaky voice to his twitchy movements, it’s over-the-top in the exact way a good over-the-top performance shouldn’t be. Compare that to Tilda Swinton’s idiosyncratic antagonist who still makes you feel even in her most overzealous moments. Steven Yuen does great work as well as another ALF member. However, the actor that makes the biggest impact in the film is Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija. So much of the movie relies on your reaction to her character. And she nails every scene.
Even the smaller roles make a huge impact, though. It’s one of the best things about Bong Joon-Ho movies. Everyone from a disgruntled truck driver to Lucy Mirando’s neurotic assistant get a chance to make an impact on the screen that is memorable, and more importantly, adds to the surrealist world the movie takes place in. And for a movie featuring animal cruelty and corporate greed, it’s incredibly funny. But it doesn’t try hard to be. By just being its quirky self, it accomplishes that.
To try and classify Okja would be a disservice to the movie. It’s as one of a kind of a film as they come. And that’s its greatest virtue. For this movie to work, it has to march to the beat of its own drum. That beat is a wonderfully unconventional movie that’s sometimes satire, sometimes dark comedy, but all heart.
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Okja is available for streaming on Netflix!