Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja is a chimera of genre and tone. It’s a lovable mutant like its titular super pig--the best super pig, we’re told, the superlative like something out of Charlotte’s Web. Which makes sense. As a director, Bong has avoided the trappings of a single genre, which has made his career exciting to follow.
There are touches of The Host and Snowpiercer in there, but Okja is its own sort of cinematic animal running free. It hops from corporate satire to eco-activism to animal rights message movie to rollicking adventure to vegetarian horror, with performances that vary from over-the-top to restrained, sometimes by the same actor in the course of a single scene. Yet it comes together. Think cuts of meat on a butcher’s chart, with each part of the mutant super pig tasting slightly different in its own way. But it’s all Okja, and it’s definitely Bong Joon-Ho.
What holds the movie together is the central relationship: it’s a movie about a girl named Mija (newcomer Ahn Seo-Hyun) and Okja, her best friend.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Release Date: June 28, 2017 (Netflix, limited theatrical)
Country: South Korea/United States
Okja opens with a press conference as preface. CEO Lucy Mirando announces the creation of special mutant super pigs made to address the world’s food shortages revamp its brand. She’s played by Tilda Swinton, who looks and acts like a character in a Christopher Guest movie. Those bangs, those braces, and later, that twitchy, insecure overbite. The initial super pigs have been given to farmers around the globe, and in 10 years the best one will be picked to publicly launch a line of tasty, savory mutant food products. Okja, the only pig we follow, was raised in the mountains of Korea by Mija and her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong).
The film lingers with Mija and Okja a while as they spend afternoons in the forests eating persimmons in sun and swimming by a waterfall. Bong builds the kinship between his lead and his digital warm-cuddly; there’s a shorthand for 10 loving years in 10 or so lackadaisical minutes. The lush mountaintop idyll also works as a counterpoint to the madness that follows--colors darken down below as our characters descend. Okja is taken away, and the movie becomes a series of pursuits. A daring chase through the streets of Seoul is one of the highlights of the film. In America, Okja goes through a series of upsetting and disturbing events that reveal the ugly side of Mirando’s shiny new product.
A little past the midway point of Okja, I can see some people souring on the movie because of what happens in the plot. Rather than make a family film for all ages, Bong’s story gets much darker than the initial fun in the sun would suggest. (More Babe: Pig in the City than Babe.) This darkness follows logically and diegetically, however, and it’s the point. This mutant movie, among other things, is an indictment of factory farming and corporate culture. It’s why Mija just wants to bring Okja back up to the mountain, above all of those concerns.
Like any CG creature, Okja looks better in some scenes and worse than others. When it works, she’s got the expressiveness of an actual animal, with mannerisms less like a pig and more like a lumbering puppy/hippo. (She even poops like a hippo. Okja is the sort of movie in which the bowel movements of an animal figure into the plot. Glorious.) Something about Okja’s eyes and snout, and maybe a certain floppiness or articulation of her ears, communicate a fair amount of emotion. When Mija is there to react, she complements and enhances the CG performance. Other times, Okja is clearly just a big digital thing dropped into a shot. I was generally able to stay with the world of the movie even when the CG was obvious. The world of Okja is messy and cartoony, and the CG is never too bad to be totally distracting from everything else that’s going on.
And there’s a lot going on.
Mija is an immutable moral center in the movie, and though she’s a newcomer, Ahn is good as a determined lead. The supporting characters are varying levels of quirky, and many get to play off Ahn as the straightwoman. Paul Dano is very Paul Dano as Jay, the leader of an Animal Liberation Front group. His misfit band of eco-terrorists squabble over the carbon footprint of cherry tomatoes and suckle on asparagus spears. Bong and co-writer Jon Ronson mock the ideological minutiae of some ALF characters (extremism is inherently funny), but they’re careful not to target the core humanity of their beliefs. Jay and his band are goofy, but they’re also the good guys.
The most overblown performance is surprisingly not Tilda Swinton but Jake Gyllenhaal. He plays Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a nasally TV wildlife personality. Off-camera, he’s like an evil Ned Flanders by way of bizarro Ace Ventura and Rip Taylor; a sadistic narcissist who hides his ugly-streak under layers of gee willikers and aww shucks. When the camera is on Dr. Johnny, his persona changes. His voice lowers and slows and he speaks from the diaphragm rather than the nose. The highs and lows of Gyllenhaal’s performance may best the representation of Okja‘s highs and lows. The man contains multitudes, some hilarious and some terrifying. (Jaeil Jung’s score also contains multitudes: a little bit of folk, a little bit of traditional orchestral music, and there’s also something for the oompah band fans out there.)
If the tone shifts and genre-bending don’t push away some viewers, I sense that Bong’s preachiness might do the trick. Okja isn’t particularly subtle about its stance on GMOs and the food business; the subtlest the film gets is a brief and passing implication that Okja is such a healthy and hearty mutant super pig because she is a free-range mutant super pig. Yet subtlety might be unnecessary here, and the same goes for genre and tone conventions. Netflix gave Bong final cut and full creative control over Okja. The result is free-range Bong Joon-Ho, which is, admittedly, an acquired taste, but it’s linked to the love people have for their favorite childhood pet. That’s a familiar, perennial flavor--narrative comfort food.
As Lucy Mirando tells us at the start of Okja, the most important thing is that the mutant super pig tastes f**king good. And it does. Weird but good, sure, but good mainly because it is so weird.