By now I’ve come to expect that a Bong Joon-Ho film will take me on an unpredictable ride through a melange of concepts, genres, and tones. The Host veered between a monster movie, a conspiracy thriller, and a family drama with aplomb. Snowpiercer was a post-apocalyptic survival story combined with an epic class struggle that was simultaneously moving, hilarious, action-packed, and thematically deep. With Okja, his latest film, released exclusively on Netflix, Bong Joon-Ho does not disappoint. I’m convinced the man is a magician. He has the uncanny ability of taking a high concept and taking it in a direction you’d never expect. I never expected a film centered around a girl and her adorable super-pig to end up being a scathing satire about corporate inauthenticity and moral bankruptcy and a polemic against industrial meat production and a rollicking action movie and a coming of age story. Most movies have trouble pulling off just one of these well. Somehow Okja pulls a super-pig out of a hat and creates a film that’s tremendously entertaining and startlingly original.
Okja centers around Mija [An Seo Hyun] who lives a carefree life in rural South Korea with her grandfather and her super-pig, Okja. This gentle, intelligent animal was genetically engineered by the Mirando corporation in order to enhance meat production. He’s also Mija’s best friend. When the Mirando corporation and its CEO Lucy Mirando [Tilda Swinton] take Okja to New York to crown him the ‘Best Super-Pig,’ Mija senses that something’s amiss. Rushing halfway across the globe, and teaming up with a group of militant animal rights activists, she tries to save Okja while getting a first-hand view of the underbelly of industrial food production.
This film could have been such a disaster. It has so many ideas that the central narrative could easily have been crushed beneath a pile of exposition and loose ends. Thankfully, Bong Joon-Ho never succumbs to the temptation to thoroughly explain his views. Instead, he focuses on the relationship between Mija and Okja to power the movie while allowing the themes to speak for themselves. Even while the movie spirals outward to involve corporate board rooms, concentration camp-like industrial meat packing facilities, and eco-terrorists, it never forgets that this story would mean nothing without that central relationship. In fact, Bong goes to great pains to ensure that the film is built on a solid relationship. The first quarter of the film largely involves watching Mija and Okja interact without the pressures of a rapidly advancing plot. Many popular movies have eschewed this type of character building in order to jump right into the action. Comparison with these films, Okja opens at a stately pace before ratcheting up the plot once viewers are sufficiently attached to the characters. In addition, An Seo Hyun, the thirteen-year-old star gives a solid performance with this demanding material. For much of the film, she’s required to act opposite a CGI super-pig. In other parts of the film, she needs to work in her second language. Despite these challenges, An Seo Hyun comes off as genuine and believable. I could feel her heartache and desperation as she struggled against a world she couldn’t understand. Okja relies heavily on this young actress, and she delivers.
Once Bong builds a strong central pillar with the relationship between Mija and Okja, he’s able to drop them into a caricature of a world that helps him explore his themes. Through his bizarre portrayal of the board room of the Mirando corporation, for example, he explores the pressures exerted on people by capitalism. Lucy Mirando, the CEO of the company, is obsessed with promoting a chipper image for a company whose business is slaughtering animals. Washed up nature documentary presenter, Johnny Wilcox [Jake Gyllenhaal], is drawn to betray his own ideals in service of the Mirando corporation. Bong also explores the inherent contradictions of extreme activism through the members of the Animal Liberation Front, who rescue Okja. The leader of this cell, Jay [Paul Dano], is portrayed as a mix of preacher, military general, terrorist, and super-spy. His motley crew includes Silver [Devon Bostick] who’s starving to death because he’s worried about the pain that he’ll cause any vegetables he might eat. All of these performances are scenery chewing and some are bizarre [I’m lookin’ at you Gyllenhaal], but they all work in service of the plot and themes. Bong doesn’t mean for these people to be fully fledged characters. Instead they serve as caricatures which accentuate the absurdity of the reality they’re based on. On the whole, this approach works. I found myself caring deeply for Okja despite him being a digital fabrication. I found myself rooting for Mija to win in her confrontation against the forces of global capitalism. Perhaps more importantly, the movie has left me thinking about the consequences of my way of life. What kind of a society do I live in where we mask the disgusting underbelly of our consumption by splattering it with inauthentic cheer? How many hunched backs am I standing on so that I can get my $36 khaki’s at The Gap? How much do animals suffer so that I can get my Whopper with Chicken Fries? In Okja, a teenage girl and a super-pig showed me the inherent absurdity and gruesomeness of the modern world and for a few minutes I paid attention.