Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ahn Seo-hyun, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
Running time: 120 minutes
After being raised in rural South Korea for 10 years by a young girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun) and her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong), Okja, a genetically-modified ‘superpig’, is taken back to New York for a public event hosted by Okja’s creators: the Mirando Cooperation – spearheaded by CEO Lucy Mirando (Swinton). Mija has other ideas and, with the aid of an underground animal welfare group, a daring rescue mission ensues.
Normally, I’ll have made my mind up about a film by the time I’ve reached the end of the post-cinema car ride home. Occasionally, it’ll have been made up for me long before then, particularly if the film is either mightily impressive, or makes me want to – as one Mark Kermode might say – bathe in Clorox. For the ones that fit somewhere in between, I generally like to mull it over once I’m horizontal and the sheep have been successfully counted. Okja, however, proved to be an exception. It’s taken me an entire weekend (and more than a few bevvies) to really decide what I think. And part of me is probably still deciding.
Screened at the most recent Cannes festival, anticipation had been growing, and the massive pig-hippo creature quickly doing the rounds on social media, ever since it was announced Netflix would be releasing it on 28th June, having acquired the distribution rights.
And with such hype, comes expectation.
Okja is quite unlike anything you’ve seen, or ever likely to see. It’s bizarre, bonkers, and at times, unexpectedly brutal. The very concept: genetically engineered ‘superpigs’ with eco-friendly excrement shipped across the globe to be raised by local farmers and returned for a ‘best-superpig’ pageant after 10 years, is both wonderfully imaginative, and oddly plausible. From the mind of Bong Joon-ho, and co-writer Jon Ronson, Okja is a journey into pure creativity: a 2-hour, genre-hopping, emotional Rubik’s Cube which will leave you cheering, laughing, crying, and cursing all the way home (or rather, as it’s Netflix, all the way upstairs or to the kitchen for a salad).
In many ways, being released on Netflix will do wonders for Okja. Taking a feature film distribution path less travelled, it’ll certainly spark intrigue. That, and that fact that EVERYONE has Netflix, so you can be pretty sure it’s viewing numbers will be more than healthy. However, it’s just such a shame that Okja won’t get the big screen treatment it deserves. This is a film made for the cinema, after all. A joyous colour pallet; action-sequences that rival that of a certain Edgar Wright film released in the UK on the same day; and a generous seasoning of Spielbergian spectacle – so much so that you half-expect the Okja of Okja to start yapping about phoning home.
Part rousing action flick across continents; part heartfelt morality fable; part animal rights propaganda; part bleak dystopia; and part anti-consumerist statement – Okja has all the hearty, fleshy, meaty cuts of a twenty-teens Babe, BFG, or Iron Giant; but also the organic ingredients of something very original. Swinton’s brace-face Lucy Mirando lays out the exposition early on, and for a fleeting, wonderfully colourful tacky opening few minutes, her ideas and motives actually resemble something that sounds like sense. But, of course, that is all but lost as soon as we are introduced to our titular pig and her companion, Mija, as the unbreakable bonds of friendship blossom in the tranquil forests and under the glistening waterfalls of mountainous South Korea. There, Okja is free: far from the corporate bigwigs that we know all too well will eventually come a’calling. It’s a familiar set-up, and a patient one at that, but one necessary in order to establish an emotional investment in the relationship between a girl and a CGI pig.
And the remaining first hour follows suit, as the narrative wheels start to really roll. We go from rural South Korea to the highway’s and underground stations of Seoul. As formula dictates, along the way we meet those on either side of the distinctly drawn morality lines. There’s Mirando and her band of corporate bandits, including associate Frank (played with cold assurance by Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito), and bat-shit crazy zoologist and TV personality Dr Johnny Wilcox (an infuriatingly overly eccentric Gyllenhaal). And then there’s the innocent, good-natured Mija, who teams up with the righteous, slightly whacky members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), led by the empathetic, if not a tad unstable, Jay (Dano). At this point the tale is riddled with good-natured laughs, as one chase scene gets the Home Alone nod of approval, and certain characters, quite literally, get riddled with toilet humour.
As the narrative takes us eventually to the Big Apple, the second hour, however, is almost an entirely different animal altogether. Much grittier, and much, much darker, the film remains Spielberg esc, but tonally goes from E.T to Schindler’s List, as Joon-ho opts for some truly harrowing scenes – and more than a few f-bombs – to really hammer home his anti-consumerist message. And it’s here where Okja will divide opinion more than any other. A necessary realism, or excessive, needless brutality? Joon-ho’s film certainly has the capacity to be read as both.
Personally, such scenes feel justified for the direction the narrative takes us in, however only exacerbate the feeling that this is a film that isn’t quite sure where it wants to position itself, and one that tries that bit too hard to make us cancel that upcoming summer BBQ.
Perhaps a little too black and white in its moral signposting, where veggie = good, and meat = bad, Okja is nevertheless an intriguing, bonkers work that boldly brings together East and West through both cast and cinematic style. Sobering, uplifting, and heart-breaking all in one, Okja is one pig you won’t forget in a hurry.