I strongly suggest you don’t dinner and a movie with this one.
Okja is the story of an unusual kind of creature, a super-pig, somewhat a combination of a pig with a rhino and a manatee. In the opening scene of the film, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) explains to a crowd of people (and, as such, the viewer) that her company, the Mirando Corporation, is looking to introduce this animal to the public. She reveals that 26 of these “baby super-pigs” have been shipped to various people around the world, as part of a ten-year contest to see which one grows to be the healthiest, and then that one will be the representative of their “super-pig project.” The eventual contest winner is Okja, who has been cared for by 14-year-old Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather in the mountains of South Korea.
When Okja is proclaimed the winner, the Mirando Corporation’s television spokesperson, Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), comes to take Okja back to the United States. Mija, however, is too attached to Okja and is heartbroken to find that her grandfather was not able to obtain ownership. Shortly after, Okja is driven away in a truck bound for the airport, and a determined Mija runs after and latches onto the truck. Chasing around South Korea, Mija comes across a group of animal rights activists who are also after Okja, and reveal to Mija that there is more to this “super-pig project” than she is aware of. What follows from there is an unforgettable journey, and when I say unforgettable, I do not mean for the better. This film just might make you go Vegan.
I should mention that the director of this film is Bong Joon-Ho, who previously directed Snowpiercer. What made Snowpiercer an interesting experience was how inconsistent its tone was, and this allowed for some absurdly creative moments with a refreshingly dark subtext. Okja has some of that same flair, but the absurdity is more concentrated around certain characters (including a Korean truck driver who shows no concern when in the middle of a car chase), while the scenes involving Mija are more dramatic and heavy. The film also contains a strong message regarding animal cruelty. The tone of the film is relatively tame for the first hour, and then the mood starts to change when Mija actually arrives in America and learns what is to become of Okja.
The second half features many scenes involving the treatment of super-pigs, with some being incredibly hard to watch, while others are just odd. One scene in particular involves people eating a tube of jerky, similar to how Tilda Swinton snacked on a “protein block” in Snowpiercer. Though the jerky in this film is not made out of cockroaches, this scene will conjure the same reaction.
Swinton is one of the finest actresses working in cinema today, and Bong Joon-Ho must notice something offbeat in her, because in both Snowpiercer and Okja, she plays outlandish characters with little to no subtly. While we’re on the subject, all of the American cast members in this movie are a bit over-the-top in their performances. Jake Gyllenhaal is insanely loony as Dr. Wilcox. Shirley Henderson, who you may remember as the high-pitched Moaning Myrtle from Harry Potter, plays Mirando’s secretary, and that high-pitched voice is back with a vengeance. Even Paul Dano and Lily Collins as members of the animal rights group seem a tad off in their delivery. The one American actor who is not over-the-top is Giancarlo Esposito, but his performance actually seems too subtle for certain scenes.
Though I cannot tell you what happens at the end, I will say that there is a line that Mija’s grandfather says in the beginning that foreshadows a character’s fate. While Okja may be a little unclear on where the story is heading for most of its runtime, the final sequence suddenly brings everything full circle.
On the down side, there are a few moments in the film that seem too absurd or unrealistic. For example, Mija is practically knocked off the moving truck during the first chase scene, and is able to walk without any signs of pain. She also somehow manages to survive slamming her body into a glass wall, trying to break into a facility. Well, if John Wick can survive a two-story fall without a scratch, I suppose anything is possible.
Okja is a strange film, yet also a fascinating one. Director Bong Joon-Ho’s trademarks are all over this movie, and he manages to tell a tale that, while hard to watch in places, does have its moments of hilarious absurdity. This is especially evident in the over-the-top acting by the American cast, because while it is a bit odd to watch, it does add to the film’s charm, and makes the story more unpredictable. In the end, the film makes such a poignant statement on animal cruelty, that I assure you that you will lose your appetite for meat.
NOTE: Stick around after the credits, for there is an additional scene. What happens in it not only emotionally contradicts the ending of the film, but also suggests a possible sequel of sorts. I guess everyone wants to make a cinematic universe now.
Okja will be released through Netflix on June 28th.