The proposition of Okja is an impossible one: Bong Joon-ho, writer/director of films like Mother and Snowpiercer, wants you to care about a supersized pig while hearing a loosely allegorical story akin to Animal Farm. Turns out that’s not so impossible because Joon-ho gets what he wants. In viewing of Okja, you will go from the absolute extremes of joy to a scream- and sweat-inducing anxiety, and you will walk away grateful for it all.
Truly, it is all at the hands of Korean auteur Joon-ho. Okja is of a singular vision from a singular person, tiptoeing the fine line between several tones and themes. It’s easy to see where it could have gone off the rails with meddling hands and wavering obligations (as it nearly does a few times), but from the incredible cold open of Tilda Swinton’s Lucy Mirando delivering a Jobs-esque pep speech to her company to the utilization of the most kickass child since, well, not that long ago with Dafne Keen in Logan, it’s a vision that grips.
The foundation is simple, if outlandish and unbelievable as all get out. A global corporation called the Mirando Corporation has found and successfully bred a sort of super pig with the promise to help contribute to ending world hunger. Part of that promise is to send out super piglets out to farmers all around the world and reconnect ten years later to find the superest of the super pigs.
One of those farmers is the grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong) of a little girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) in the South Korean countryside. Together they have worked on raising the super pig named Okja, a happy-go-lucky sort of swine that exhibits the species-defining size and surprising intellect, though really Mija and Okja raised each other, forging a deep and wordless bond. This introduction is as close to a distillation of the entire movie The Jungle Book as possible. It’s like a charming little buoy floating in a dark sea.
Unfortunately, that sea has a storm on the horizon, as you would expect but wish against with Mija’s adorable relationship with Okja dancing and squealing in your heart. Celebrity zoologist and Mirando spokesman Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) is going around the world to document the super pigs and find the best one. And good god, Gyllenhaal crashes onto the scene like he invented greasy flamboyance and it is fantastic.
He’s chewing up the scene and reveling in the fact that he doesn’t have to shoulder the weight of an entire movie himself. (It’s also extra hilarious that everyone has to pretend that he doesn’t still have Southpaw-levels of jacked on his body as he takes on the role of a physically inept scientist.) It presents a shocking contrast, then, when the first heartbreak (of many) in the film emerge: Okja is leaving Mija and going back to the Mirando Corporation.
The story then barrels headlong into several new and equally compelling threads. There’s drama within the Mirando Corporation wherein Swinton and Giancarlo Esposito get to really flex their swings between grave humor and grave drama, the former especially getting weirder and weirder as the scenes fly by. (Film critic Emily Yoshida nails it by describing Joon-ho’s films as “wacky summer camp” for Hollywood.) And while this happens, the painful tension between Mija and her grandfather is out of sight but never out of mind.
Combined, they undercut a horrific and surprisingly affecting satire of corporate greed. The ending scenes are both visually and emotionally the polar opposite of what you get in the beginning. They’re painful and disturbing and beg questions as a tired token of a suppressive tradition is traded for something that transcends reason and greed and, well, logic, really. It feels like shaking loose the preceding 120 minutes of well-stirred and stewed deliberations on objective versus personal morality.
Part of those questions are formed by the introduction of a “peaceful” eco-terrorist group called ALF, or Animal Liberation Front. (Yeah, it never stops being funny.) Paul Dano plays their leader Jay while Steven Yuen plays their tech expert K (the Men in Black parallel does not go wasted), their exchanges creating the pillars on which the group itself is a teardown of the general disarray of semi or fully anonymous activist groups.
Dano’s overwhelming sincerity calls back to Swiss Army Man, a contrast with the absurdity surrounding him, while Yuen’s intoxicating charm provides an avenue for both Mija and ourselves to be drawn into their controversy. Their entire lead-up and wind-down from the main thread of the movie also gives an excuse for Joon-ho to indulge in his penchant for propelling and engaging action sequences, swapping out milquetoast Hollywood bombast with kinetic drama.
To wit, every pulse-pounding stride that Mija takes to save Okja is an informed one. It can be funny to see someone argue with a disillusioned company truck driver in the middle of a chase and it can be harrowing to see a reconnected love hinge on nothing more than a hope that it can survive anything simply because there will be everything in its way, but it is always exciting because Joon-ho knows that action isn’t empty.
That’s not to say Okja emerges flawless. It is a busy film and juggles a great deal and not everything goes off without a hitch. Granted, Joon-ho and company manage to keep all of it aloft, but as they vacillate wildly between easygoing tones and harsh and twisted imagery, the handling goes from deft to bumbling. And the satire of factory farming ends up being less nuanced and more shoving your face into the bloodied, gory grates on the floor,
But in a film that tries to do so much within the storms of story and ambition, it still finds an incredible amount of success. The last act is almost as anxiety-inducing than the final act of Captain Phillips and its first act is as enrapturing and charming as that of Baby Driver. And everything in between is a slick and fun run from the bucolic tops of the Korean mountains to the grimy alleys of Paramus, New Jersey. Heed my advice and shove Okja to the top of your Netflix queue.
Final Score: 8 out of 10