First and most important the “animal endangerment” warning: Okja can be hard to watch. While it’s not as bloody as it could be, it’s frank about the slaughterhouse and the treatment of animals raised to slaughter in agri-business abattoirs. It’s not exploitative, but there are a couple scenes that could be tough if you’re sensitive to animals in danger. Use your own judgment, but keep in mind this is basically a fairy tale about a special animal and her human friend. There’s a lot of genuine warmth throughout, too.
In theory, Okja probably shouldn’t work. The latest from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host), Okja is an uneven mix of fable, satire, and Spielberg-style action revolving around Okja, a “super-pig”, which is like a hippo-sized cow-pig with a curious doggy face, and Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the little girl who has grown up with Okja. They live on an idyllic mountain-top farm in South Korea, and Okja and Mija spend their days ambling through the forest and playing together. Okja is Mija’s best—and only—friend, and the super-pig seems especially attuned to Mija; obviously a smart animal, Okja saves Mija’s life by working out an action hero’s gamble.
But reality, as it is wont to do, soon intrudes in the form of Dr. Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal in a BONKERS performance), a television presenter—imagine a deranged Steve Irwin—who is hosting an international “Best Super-Pig” competition for Mirando. What’s Mirando? A multi-national agri-business that directly satirizes Monsanto. The CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton with an overbite), devised the super-pig competition as a way to make the genetically engineered super-pigs palatable to the public. She’s touting them as a miracle biological discovery, and emphasizing that they are naturally bred and raised. Okja, in fact, is part of a troop of super-pigs being raised by farmers hand-selected around the world to test their best, natural farming practices on the super-pigs.
Of course it’s all bullsh*t. The Mirando part of Okja plays like Upton Sinclair by way of gonzo journalism, and Swinton is at her goofy best as Lucy, who snipes about her miserable twin sister, Nancy, whom everyone hates because she doesn’t understand people. Lucy does, however, so she knows just how to market the super-pigs: With a parade and “organic” banners.
Enter the Animal Liberation Front (headed by Paul Dano and The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun). As Mija gets sucked into their plot to expose Mirando’s lies and save Okja, the film takes on a Spielbergian bent, with a young child on a quest to save a vaguely magical friend. Bong is great at action, and while nothing in Okja tops the spectacular sequences of Snowpiercer, there is a great bit with Okja clumsily storming through an underground mall, and the final confrontation has a palpable sense of desperation to it.
There are so many conflicting tones in Okja it ought to be incoherent, but Bong keeps it all on track and the cast throws themselves into their roles with such enthusiasm that they carry it off. (It’s an especially tall order for Gyllenhaal, who is playing a complete fruitcake.) It’s also gorgeous, lensed by Darius Khondji (a favorite of James Gray and Woody Allen). There’s a night shot of the Korean mountains I want framed on my wall. Bong is a master working with masters, and Okja is one of the best-assembled films yet this year.
And it’s genuinely funny, with some great quotable lines—“We’re changing the world with my shiny antenna!”—and it will also tug on the old heartstrings and elicit real sympathy for the super-pigs. They’re intelligent enough to understand something bad is happening, and a particular desperate act toward the end is especially moving. Okja is a fantastical fable-satire that is equal parts funny and horrifying. It might not be enough to turn the world vegetarian, but at the very least it forces us to consider what we eat and how it got to our plates.
Okja is available on Netflix.
Here's Tilda in Paris for Fashion Week.