Illustration: Kevin K.
Since E.T. set an undeniable high-point in the genre, “kid and extraordinary, abduction-worthy pet” films have become something no noteworthy director would touch. Often dealing with sports-playing animals and cartoonish villains, and just as often sent straight to home video, the genre as a whole is typically, rightfully ignored. Not since Brad Bird’s 1999 classic The Iron Giant has there been a remarkable standout in the “moppet and fantastical, coveted freak” niche. With Okja, Snowpiercer and The Host director Bong Joon-ho has finally changed all that, creating a wonderfully-unique new entry that’s shockingly mature even as it clings to a few of the genre’s childish trappings.
As laid out in an intro from CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, ever-so-slightly dialed back from her snaggletoothed scenery chewing in Snowpiercer), the film is built around the Mirando company’s marketing of a “super-pig” meant to revolutionize the way humans eat meat. Pandering to the anti-GMO, organic, green movements, Mirando deceptively touts that their überswine is an all-natural product, and claim that these creatures are hugely-efficient in converting feed to edible product. (This latter point is actually verified in what may be the best use of scatological humor yet seen in a live-action/cgi hybrid.) To further their “all-natural” PR angle, the corporation sends newborns of their super-pigs to various sites around the world, where the creatures are to be raise with local, traditional methods. At the end of a decade, the biggest, meatiest of the test subjects will be crowned the winner, ostensibly becoming the model by which future generations will be raised.
Ten years later, in 2017, we meet the titular super-pig, raised in the mountainous farmland of South Korea. In a beautifully Miyazaki-like sequence, it’s shown that Okja is highly intelligent and emotionally invested in Mija, the 14-year-old orphan it’s grown up with. Predictably, Okja is also soon to be reclaimed by Mirando, leading Mija on a madcap, always-entertaining journey to reclaim her fleshy pet livestock. Aiding her, somewhat incidentally, is a disconcertingly-calm Paul Dano, who’s backed by Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun, Mirror Mirror‘s Lily Collins, and a handful of others in tow. Dano plays Jay, leader of the Animal Liberation Front, a radical-yet-pacifist group that hopes to expose and bring down the Mirando corporation. Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito co-stars as an underhanded Mirando crony, with Jake Gyllenhaal turning in the largest performance he’s ever given as a washed-up Jack Hanna-turned-corporate face. (A cackling Gyllenhaal plays it like the Joker by way of a drunken Rip Taylor—complete with a brief instance of giddy, celebratory paper-throwing.)
Just as it sounds, Okja is unassailably leftist, offering a fairly vivid indictment of corporate greed and factory farming (the baby-eating of Snowpiercer now seems even more silly compared to the horrors Swinton is forcing down throats here). But what’s surprising is its evenhandedness in doling out both satire and sympathy. Its vile, wacky baddies have their human moments and understandable, even-noble motives; the mostly-heroic ALF slowly reveals a hidden darkness and an oblivious irony to their beliefs; and even as the film questions the morality of meat, it likewise ribs the average Whole Foods customer who’s blindly looking for whatever ostensibly-healthy buzzwords are trendy to slap on a package. For being to agribusiness what Free Willy was to Sea World, its heroes and villains are a little less black and white.
While the film obviously draws from the E.T. well, in likewise Spielbergian terms, it succeeds just as much in the awe-inspiring ways Jurassic Park did—and not just because a grinning Gyllenhaal rests his safari hat-clad head against the heavily-breathing chest of what’s basically a dinosaur. Bong delivers subtle hints of reality few directors seem to bother with. Beyond the real-life technology on-screen (which sometimes borders on product placement), Okja offers the kind of nuanced touches that made JP feel so firmly grounded, so palpable, despite its outlandish premise. In the Mirando offices, there’s a desk calendar featuring “cute” photos of super-pig butts; Mirando employees sneak selfies with the bizarre swine to post on social media; and like Mr. DNA, a convincing in-film animation provides exposition for all the supposed science involved. Meanwhile, young star Ahn Seo-hyun leads action set-pieces that are more outright thrilling—and infinitely more stylish—than anything that’s come out of an actual Jurassic follow-up. (Most memorably, there’s a gripping chase sequence that builds to a climax set to John Denver’s “Annie’s Song”; it instantly earns a place among Bong’s career-high moments, despite the scene literally trailing off into shit.)
Like its titular super-pig, Okja is a big, charming, lovingly-nurtured best-of-breed, and it’s hard to believe a massive corporation actually made it. Netflix gave Bong the freedom to create something strangely beautiful but undeniably strange—an eclectic mix of his prior two efforts, blending over-the-top sci-fi satire and Spielberg-inspired adventure. Yet that strength may be its biggest fault, too. The film always feels a little too broad (especially in the over-the-top antagonists) to be made for adults, while at the same time, it has enough gore, implied super-pig rape (yeah…), and F-bombs that it would surely earn an R-rating in theaters. In the end, the villainous Mirando corporation is maybe right in their advice on super-pig consumption: stop dwelling on the particulars of its make-up and just enjoy the finished product. Because it’s pretty damn great.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Runtime: 120 minutes
Cast: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Giancarlo Esposito
Release: June 28, 2017 – streaming only on Netflix