Okja | Bong Joon-ho | June 28, 2017
Despite the wishes of Cannes attendees, Okja, the latest from director Bong Joon-ho, is now available for streaming on Netflix (as well as a few select theaters). What begins as a heartwarming tale takes a wild turn into something of a wild commentary on the evilness of both the meat industry and big corporations. Bong’s film juggles multiple different tones and is constantly shifting gears to varying degrees of success, but it’s hard to leave a viewing of Okja without being moved in some way or to engage in a thoughtful discussion about its concepts.
Beginning in 2007, we learn from Mirando CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) that there’s not enough food in the world. Her plan to fix this is the superpig, a giant pig that’s the size of a hippopotamus. With its creation, the company will have generated a cheap source of food that they will sell as a real animal, not a GMO (genetically modified organism). She sets into motion a plan to send 26 superpiglets to farmers across the globe and they will return in ten years to crown one of the pigs the winner, just in time for Mirando to sell all different parts of superpig to hungry consumers.
We skip ahead ten years and meet one of the superpigs, Okja, who is living a happy life in South Korea with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the granddaughter of Heebong (Byun Hee-bong), one of the farmers participating in the contest. They have formed a tight friendship over the years, one that is rudely interrupted one day by the arrival of Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a zoologist and the face of Mirando. Okja easily wins his approval and is deemed the winner of the contest, and is soon ready to be sent to New York City for the superpig award ceremony.
Naturally, Mija doesn’t go for this as she doesn’t see Okja as an animal, but as family, and uses every fiber in her being to stop Mirando. She’s soon thrust in the middle of a political battle between the corporation and an activist group known as Animal Liberation Front lead by Jay (Paul Dano), K (Steven Yeun) and Lily Collins (Red).
The screenplay, written by both Bong and Jon Ronson, juggles many different tones and styles, starting as a children’s fantasy tale, throwing in some action and chase sequences, and then morphing into an off-the-wall political satire with wacky comedy sprinkled in-between it all. In the hands of a lesser director, this story would go off the rails, and although the shift in tone can be a bit unwieldy and uneven, Bong makes a good majority of Okja work. The scenes of insanity are countered with moments of thoughtfulness and heartwarming sincerity.
A lot of credit goes to the talent of this stacked cast. Child actress Ahn Seo-hyun is able to carry the film as Mija, bringing believability to the fact that her best friend is a CGI pig. The CGI of the titular Okja does leave a little something to be desired, but it’s the performance of Ahn that allows us to use our imagination and truly engage with their relationship. Tilda Swinton digs her teeth into the role of both Lucy Mirando and her rival twin sister Nancy and even more nutty is Jake Gyllenhaal who totally chews the scenary in a batshit crazy performance that was a trip to watch. There’s also plenty to love in a film that brings together Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Henshall and Byun Hee-bong.
Okja is always wild and engaging, constantly changing lanes and directions. Sure, it may get a bit lost along the way here and there, but its poignant ending is a sobering look at the meat industry that will make even the most hardcore bacon lovers question what is goes on with their food behind the scenes. Throw on top of this the excessive greed of corporations, and it’s no wonder that Bong had to resort to wacky satirical methods in order to deliver the rather depressing message.
Film purists can argue all they want about the future of the film industry or streaming, but credit to Netflix for taking a chance on a film such as this, giving a director like Bong Joon-ho the platform to tell his story in the way he wanted, and to a wide-scale audience (though I wish they would let it play in more theaters). We may get a shortage of ways to watch quality independent cinema someday, but with streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, it looks like we won’t be starving anytime soon.