A teenage girl wants nothing more than to remain with her lifelong pet and companion – the super pig Okja – in Korean auteur Bong Joon- ho's latest film. Everything else is just stuff that gets in the way.
Bong delivers one of Netflix's better high profile original films in "Okja," a quirky yet topical yet big-hearted film. Similar to Bong's 2006 breakout film "The Host," a monster movie about a doltish dad who will do anything to rescue his daughter, "Okja" plays to family themes (a girl and her pet) but presents them through a mature, adult lens (corporate greed, environmentalism, genetic science).
So the context of "Okja" is complicated, but the story is quite simple and human. 14-year-old Mija (An Seo-hyun) has lived with her grandfather on a mountainside farm in South Korea for most of her life with Okja, a super pig gifted to the farm by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) and the Mirando Corporation as part of a competition to develop the pigs as a non-GMO food source to help fight hunger. When the corporation and super pig judge Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) come to collect, Okja is clearly the finest of the super pigs in the world, and they endeavor to take her to New York City. Mija follows them to Seoul and attempts to get her friend back, coming up against the corporation and a group of animal rights activists, all of which have different agendas for Okja.
Hilarious and deeply disturbing, violent but also quite warm, Bong has created another distinctive film that makes him one of the most interesting filmmakers that not enough people are talking about. The mixed bag of tones will certainly turn off viewers who aren't sure what to do with a film that doesn't fit in any one neatly labeled genre box, those with an open mind will appreciate the way he tells extremely accessible stories that address complicated themes.
Okja means a lot of things to a lot of people: friendship and stability to Mija; money, science and reputation to the Mirando Corporation; injustice and corporate greed to the animal liberation group; and affordable food to the masses. The plot is essentially these competing interests sorting themselves out.
Part of what makes "Okja" distinctive is the caricaturized supporting roles that make everything feel just a shade unusual. As she did in Bong's last film, "Snowpiercer," Swinton so effortlessly creates a wildly larger than life character portrait that simultaneously feels grounded in reality. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, is infuriatingly grating as the eccentric loose cannon TV personality, but his character is a signal to the audience of how to look at and think of the world of the film.
Bong has such a specific perspective on society that comes through in way subtle and not in "Okja." He brilliantly whittles the story down to one pivotal moment at the end, and the outcome of all this chaos suggests he's neither pessimistic nor optimistic. Perhaps he would argue that it's not his business to come down one way or another, but simply to use a giant hippo-like pig to at least prove that our world is majorly – and maybe unnecessarily – complicated
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