Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Ahn Seo-hyun, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo-shik, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
Put down your bacon sandwich and listen up.
There’s an evil corporation out there that is genetically creating superpigs, masquerading under the guise of natural and organic means, in order to create the tastiest meat going – low price, big taste, cool looking creature is pretty much the take. To the outside world, they’re just another big company with another big product launch.
Headed by bonkers new CEO Lucy Mirando (Swinton), the Mirando Corporation has created twenty-six superpigs which will be distributed to farms across the world and ten years later, one will be crowned the ULTIMATE SUPERPIG!
In the quiet countryside of South Korea lives Mija (Seo-hyun), her grandfather Heebong (Hee-bong) and superpig Okja. There Mija spends her days frolicking with her superpig and the two are the best of friends. Everything changes when one day, zoologist and Mirando spokesperson Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal) arrives to proclaim Okja as the winner of the competition and gleefully informs the family Okja is to be transported to New York for the grand ceremony to be the face of Mirando Corporation’s newest product.
A devastated Mija follows Okja to Seoul to prevent the superpig from being taken (after her grandfather bought a gold pig ornament, as opposed to Okja) however she isn’t the only one interested in thwarting the Corporation’s plans. Animal activist group Animal Liberation Front (ALF) are in town, headed by its focused leader Jay (Dano), and they will fight until the day is done to ensure animal rights are adhered to – and so will Mija, who will travel the world to save her best friend Okja.
If it all sounds a bit crazy then that’s because it is. Bong Joon-ho has crafted a story full of mysticism, action, comedy, emotion and a large smattering of scathing satire. The idea that massive corporations are generating income via greed and suffering is a message that is served up in droves, as well as the animal rights/anti-meat message cooking through the movie – but crucially there are no guilt-trips, you aren’t being told to give up meat or asked to sign petitions. However, the future is bleak and hopeless if you believe Joon-ho’s ending.
The Mirando Corporation is clinically contemporary in its image, and Tilda Swinton’s Lucy brings some crazy to their business. Her portrayal is loud, charismatic and bursting with optimism – she’s a corporate Effie Trinket. Her sister and corporate rival is also played by Swinton, though is a much colder, heartless being. Counteract that with the sweeping greens and blissful peace of the South Korean countryside and the opposites of the characters at hand becomes important. Mija is a young girl who loves her pet, and the Corporation want to make steaks out of Okja – and the movie doesn’t hold back in showing their loving relationship and the brutality of Mirando in landing their prize. As Mija, Ahn Seo-hyun is superb, the thirteen year old belying her youth and delivering a heartfelt performance full of emotion and power. As for the titular creature, bought to life by a blend of CGI and puppetry, the playful porker is a mix of pig, elephant and rhino (just without the tusks) and looks good on the screen.
There is a lot going on throughout the movie and at times Okja suffers because of this. As the tone shifts from introspective to action, the shift is jarring. There are subplots raised and unexplored also, between members of the ALF and also strands involving the Corporation. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is hit-and-miss, deviating from his usual, Gyllenhaal is boisterous, squeaky and Jim Carrey-lite – but it doesn’t quite work within the confines of this movie. The ALF are, thankfully, not portrayed as stereotypical tree-hugger types, and they also come in for some slight ridicule for balance.
There’s well-placed humour throughout the movie, jokes that never feel out of place or against the tone of the movie. Joon-ho has done well to mix emotion and comedy in a way where it doesn’t betray the characters or how they are presented. Working against the comedy are the scenes of animal abuse which can be hard-hitting at times, especially as the movie begins to hurtle towards the dessert course. The bleak, almost torture camp-like factory where the superpigs are rounded up is suitably gloomy and austere, there’s no need to have it any other way. This is the production line, and this is what the movie rails against.
Okja is Netflix’s first great movie, and one that deserves to be seen for its quality and message. Never pandering, always defiant – the movie entertains just as much as it shouts to the rooftops, it’s a fine statement from Joon-ho.
Veggie burger for dinner tonight.
August 2nd 2017