South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho may be a vegetarian, but I can only assume he is a cinematic omnivore, influenced by B-movies, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Miyazaki, Kubrick, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and everything in between. His own cinematic vision is a wonderful mishmash of these styles—sentimental yet edgy; dreamy yet caustic. I was a huge fan of Bong’s Snowpiercer, a thrillingly visionary sci-fi and, if anything, his Okja is even better. It may not end up being my favorite film of the year, but I can easily see it being someone’s favorite—hell, I can see it being someone’s favorite film of all time. It’s that special.
Here’s the plot: In some unspecified future, there is a world hunger crisis and the giant Mirando Corporation, led by newly minted CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), is developing “superpigs”—essentially giant pig/hippo hybrids—as a new food source. She claims, in a glittery televised event, that the superpigs were farm-bred, with no GMOs, and that 26 of her piglets are being delivered to farmers around the world. In ten years time, she’ll check back in—whichever farmer has raised the greatest superpig, will win a prize.
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Cut to an idyllic South Korean mountain village, where 13-year-old Mija (adorably poker-faced Ahn Seo Hyun) lives with her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong) and her pet superpig, Okja. Because they live at the secluded top of the mountain, no child and her pet have ever been closer. They fish together—Okja jumps into the lake, sending the fish flying; they sleep together; Mija even crawls into Okja’s mouth to brush his teeth. The superpig is an advanced breed—highly intelligent and intuitive and devoted. In one thrilling sequence, Okja uses ingenuity and bravery to save Mija’s life. (As for the computer animation, it’s stunning. Okja, in all her snouty, wrinkly enormity, feels as real as the mutt currently farting and snoring at my feet.)
And then one day, a group of employees from Mirando Corp., including the eccentric TV veterinarian Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), climb up to Mija’s village and declare Okja the winner of the competition.
Because her grandfather has been cagey about the whole venture, Mija doesn’t understand what this means—that they’ll take her pet to America, for a ceremony. After that, well, Okja’s fate is ominously unclear.
With that, Mija embarks on an adventure, running away from home and following Okja first to Seoul, then to New York. Along the way, she meets up with a group of animal activists, the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), led by true believer Jay (Paul Dano) and Korean translator K (Steven Yeun). They want to help Mija, but more than that, they have a mission—to expose Mirando Corporation’s insidious practices, promote vegetarianism, and end animal cruelty. As for Mija, she just wants to take Okja home.
What’s so great about this film is that it works on both the macro and micro levels. On it’s most basic level, it’s a simple fable about a heroic young girl defying the bad guys to save her best friend. But the micro details are no less compelling. The members of ALF, for example, are vividly drawn. They have internecine conflict (some believe the ends justify any means; Jay wants to strictly adhere to the group’s “do no harm” mission statement); they politely apologize for any disruptions their animal liberation might cause; and they use non-lethal weapons, like scattered ball bearings and guns that shoot pink petals. The ALF crew seem like they dropped in to Okja from some other, fully-formed movie altogether (and hell yes, I’d watch that movie!).
The rest of the supporting characters are on point, too: Tilda Swinton is her typically kooky and fearless self, as both the not-too-bright Lucy and her alpha-bitch twin sister. Giancarlo Esposito is wonderfully droll as Lucy’s duplicitous deputy. Even a bored young guy driving a truck for Mirando Corp is memorable—his lazy slackerdom turns him into a kind of accidental hero.
But I want to take a moment to praise (not bury) Jake Gyllenhaal, whose performance as Johnny Wilcox has been a source of some controversy. (“Jake Gyllenhaal in Okja: Brilliant or awful?” reads one Vulture headline.) The actor clearly goes for the gusto here, playing Wilcox as an unlikely cross between Groucho Marx, Jack Hanna, and Andy Kaufman. Yes, the performance is over-the-top—ridiculous even. But I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. What’s more, Gyllenhaal also gives this fame-obsessed showman some pathos, especially in a drunken scene where he mournfully mutters to himself, “I’m an animal lover!” as he prepares to torture an animal.
Speaking of torture, Okja comes this close to being a fable the whole family can enjoy, but there are too many upsetting scenes of animal abuse—not to mention F-bombs—for me to recommend it to the little ones. Still, kids over 12 should see it. Not only is it a scathing indictment of the meat industry, it just might end up being their favorite film ever.
Okja is now streaming on Netflix.