Verdict: “Okja” is smart, rowdy, earnest, depressing, and incredibly fun, all while taking a not-so-nuanced jab at the meat industry.
Bong Joon-ho just won’t stop cranking out high-energy, politically poignant, insanely fun films, and depressing topics can’t slow him down. “Okja,” his takedown of the meat industry, is all peak Bong Joon-ho-ness: slick, fast, smart and a great ol’ time.
Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) lives on a Korean mountainside with her grandpa and a “miracle”—ahem—superpig named Okja. Okja is huge and cuddly, reminiscent of a gigantic puppy. She is also the property of Mirando Corporation, a meat company freshly taken over by childish, self-absorbed Lucy Mirando (played by the ever wonderful Tilda Swinton). Lucy, striving to one-up her father and sister Nancy after their tenures as CEO, has “bred”—ahem—superpigs like Okja in an attempt to create a meat source that leaves a minimal impact on the environment while still tasting “fucking good” (her words).
With the help of a former celebrity zoologist (Jake Gyllenhaal), Lucy whisks Okja off the mountain to New York City to showcase her biggest, best pig. However, Mija, being a badass lil’ girl who’s deeply devoted to her pet, won’t let her go quietly. Along the way she kinda sorta teams up with and is unintentionally used by an animal advocacy group led by Jay (Paul Dano) as they try to expose Mirando Corp’s cruelty to animals.
The cast, if you can’t tell from the names above, is stellar. Expressive and agile and so engaging, Ahn Seo-hyun is a perfect child action star. Swinton is her usual glorious self, as is Gyllenhaal, who I especially love in such a whacky role.
But Okja herself is really the star here. A thoughtful, loving, concerned superpig whose giant CGI eyes tell us so much. The film hinges on Mija’s attempts to rescue her, but Okja is a character too, not just some animal getting passed around. I was constantly concerned for her, especially when things started to go bad.
And boy, do they get bad. Bong has a striking style when it comes to merging tones. Specifically, he’s really good at starting off with one mood and then slinging around to something completely different without ruining the whole flow. “Okja” has a bit of a whacky beginning, with its lovingly inventive theme, ecstatic energy and propulsive action. Then somewhere in the middle, a meat factory-based horror story sets in and the rest of the movie, while still infused with the same sense of urgency, becomes a lot darker. Like…a lot.
A friend of mine didn’t like this shift in tone, but I think Bong pulls it off. Jarring changes like that suit Bong’s ideas about the world. Not everything is black and white with him. Nancy, for example, turns out to be a much worse egg than ditsy Lucy. A bunch of things, however, appear to be black and white to the director, like animals being treated nicely and, oh yeah, everything in “Snowpiercer.” Because of this, it makes sense that “Okja” should shock the senses with its shift from joyful raucous to straight up terror.
For me, this all works superbly. I laughed and bit my nails as Mija fought her way to her best friend, and then cried and contemplated saving all the pigs from the closest sausage factory I could find.
“Okja” is available to stream on Netflix, where it was released this month.