Okja is the latest film from Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. It’s created some controversy, which is not unusual for Bong, whose movies have always challenged the boundaries of genre and dramatic form. The Host, for instance, from 2006, took the premise of monster movies to places never seen before, and later his crime picture Mother, and the futuristic political thriller Snowpiercer exploded other genres in ways that sometimes divided audiences. If anything, Okja is even more of a stretch for him, and for the audience.
I’ll just mention by the way, for anyone wondering, that when I talk about Korean film, you can assume I mean South Korea, because frankly, nothing of cinematic value comes from the North.
Anyway, the unusual nature of Bong’s new film is evident immediately from the prologue with Tilda Swinton as a flamboyant executive of a food company announcing the development of a new super-piglet, and sponsoring a 10-year contest between farmers of various countries to raise the biggest and best super-pigs, which will win someone a fabulous prize, while eventually defeating, or so she says, world hunger.
From that bizarre beginning we shift to a simple home in the mountains of Korea, where Mija, an eleven-year-old girl played by An Seo Hyun, lives with her grandfather and the massive and adorable super-pig Okja, who looks like she’s got some hippo and elephant genes to go with her pig ones. The screen character Okja is, of course, a product of digital animation, and what a marvelous creation she is. A brilliant, lengthy sequence showing the bond between the girl and her huge pet establishes Okja’s intelligence, loyalty, and lovableness. In fact, this whole section is so bright and warm and funny, it could be in a children’s film, and I’ve seen the movie called that in the press, which is not right, because Bong radically switches gears when the corporate suits come along to take Okja away to Seoul and then America for their big contest event, and a grief-stricken Mija goes on a quest to save her beloved friend.
The rest of the movie becomes a combination of intense action film with chase sequences, and a boisterous satire of the corporate world, portrayed by the hilarious Swinton and other able actors—this aspect marred only, in my opinion, by an over-the-top performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as the narcissistic host of a television show about animals. Along the way, a group of animal liberation front activists led by Paul Dano get into the picture, and Bong satirizes them as well. If you’ve seen other films by Bong Joon-Ho, you know that his comedy style is frenetic, unpredictable, and tinged with some danger, and here for the most part the effect is sustained very well. But all this, plus numerous F-bombs, mean that Okja is not in fact a movie for kids.
So, this journey ends up taking us to an overall theme that for me was unexpectedly poignant and powerful. Behind all the grotesque corporate theater is a massive industrial operation in which the pigs are to be killed and sold for meat. Bong is not targeting meat eating in general, but factory farming. And yes, we are taken there, and shown the devastating reality of how animals are treated in these places. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel that the audience was being unfairly manipulated here.
Ojka is a weird film, to say the least, so expect to be thrown off balance sometimes. The picture was financed by Netflix so that the theatrical release would coincide with its appearing on that streaming network. The result of that strategy, as it turns out, is that Okja is not slated to appear in very many American theaters at all, as far as I can tell—which is a shame, I think, because it must look spectacular on the big screen. But it looks good on Netflix, and it’s a very interesting and dynamic work about how we can bond very deeply with animals, and yet also sit down to a ham or a steak dinner without thinking much about it. Okja makes you think about it.