SYNOPSIS: A gentle giant and the girl who raised her are caught in the crossfire between animal activism, corporate greed and scientific ethics.
On the surface, Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Okja’ appears to be this generation’s ‘E.T.’, a charming and ultimately moving tale about the bond between a young kid and her non-human companion. At least in the first act, it is precisely that, with tranquil mountain scenes of preteen Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) spending her days at Okja’s side. Bong has acknowledged Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki as an influence here, and true enough, these simple and yet disarmingly sweet moments of Mija feeding Okja with fruit from the trees growing on the mountainside, catching fish by a waterfall for dinner or even napping on the beast’s belly are full of innocent wonder, reminiscent of ‘Pete’s Dragon’ or perhaps more befittingly ‘My Neighbour Totoro’.
But those familiar with Bong’s earlier ‘The Host’, ‘Mother’ and ‘Snowpiercer’ will know that ‘Okja’ will certainly turn out to be much more – and sure enough, like his earlier films, the Korean filmmaker evolves his family-friendly adventure into a screwball farce in the middle act, and finally to a sincere eco-drama/ corporate satire involving animal cruelty and slaughterhouse horror. That in itself requires Bong to shift gears between comedy, emotion and action within the same movie, but as he demonstrated with his monster-movie-cum-environmentalist-comedy or his psychological-murder-mystery-cum-mother-son-drama or his dystopic-sci-fi-cum-political allegory, Bong is a complete master of tone, such that ‘Okja’ is less a messy hybrid of different genres than an intriguing, even mesmerising, combination of all three at the same time.
Setting the context straight right from the start, Bong introduces us to the alternate present where an agrochemical company known as the Mirando Corporation has figured out the technology to genetically engineer a breed of Chilean ‘super-pig’ in order to meet the food needs of the world’s population. But in order to get the public on its side after a toxic past, its newly minted CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) distributes 26 such piglets to 26 different farmers around the world to be raised in different natural habitats, culminating in a beauty pageant a decade later where one of them pigs will be crowned ‘best super pig’. Okja is one of the 26 – a CG mix of pig, puppy and hippo that frankly is more hippo-like than porcine but completely adorable – given to Mija’s grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) to raise, though the latter has not told Mija that her time will Okja will expire soon enough.
When representatives from Mirando show up to assess Okja and take her pet back to America, Mija is devastated. Yet instead of channelling that into resentment towards her grandfather, she sets out to rescue Okja and bring her back to their mountain home, a quest that will take her to Seoul and eventually to New York City itself. Along the way, Mija will encounter a motley bunch of eccentric characters, including has-been celebrity zoologist Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), guerrilla animal-rights group leader Jay (Paul Dano), and last but not least Lucy’s ruthless twin sister Nancy (also played by Swinton). Other recognizable supporting parts include Lily Collins and Steven Yeun as Jay’s fellow Animal Liberation Front (ALF) members, as well as Shirley Henderson and Giancarlo Esposito as sycophantic employees of Lucy/ Nancy Mirando depending on who is boss of the company.
Yet even as the film gets bigger, it never loses focus on its heroine Mija or the central bond of friendship between her and Okja. Indeed, the two major action sequences are centred on Mija – the first, and arguably the more impressive one, has Mija busting through a glass-plate window to get into the Mirando offices, then chasing down a truck carrying Okja on foot through the streets of Seoul, guiding a trampling Okja through a crowded underground shopping mall, making acquaintance with the ALF for the first time, and ending up as an unwitting pawn in their plan to expose Mirando’s heinous misdeeds; while the second places Mija in the middle of a hectic New York City parade where Mija gets battered in the midst of the melee between the ALF and Nancy’s private armed resistance. All the while, there is never any doubt that Mija’s attachment to Okja remains her sole driving force, and the purity of that in and of itself is genuinely poignant.
It should also be said however that as appealing as its human-animal dynamics may be for a younger audience, ‘Okja’ does get a lot darker in its final act. There is a truly disturbing scene of Okja being forcibly bred by another male ‘super-pig’, the trauma of which causes her to turn frenzied and disorientated at the aforementioned coronation parade. There is another scene of hundreds of super-pigs kept in pens, and subsequent ones which show the destiny which awaits them in the abattoir. As manipulative as these scenes may be, Bong’s intention is to provoke his audience into thinking about the capitalist food chain of which we are part of, the ethics behind the livestock industry and consumerism that are often conveniently or expediently neglected. Never content simply to entertain, Bong again fashions ‘Okja’ as immensely engaging mainstream entertainment with a strong socio-political message.
This review will not be complete without addressing once more the controversy that has surrounded ‘Okja’, given how it is financed and will be released in most territories around the world solely on the streaming service than on the big screen. Frankly, we couldn’t care more about this debate, because ‘Okja’ is easily the most original films we’ve seen this entire summer. As long as big-screen Hollywood remains creatively bereft churning out one ‘Pirates’ or ‘Transformers’ or ‘Despicable Me’ sequel after another, we’re more than happy to give our money to Netflix instead and enjoy ‘Okja’ from the comfort of our living room. In short, ‘Okja’ is an absolute, unbridled delight from start to end – and by that, we mean right to the very end of the credits (you get the hint).
Review by Gabriel Chong