It’s hard to know what to think of Bong Joon-ho’s strange new film Okja, but when the credits began to roll I knew one thing, I didn’t like it. The sprawling girl-and-her-dog film is a lot of things: a heart-warming adventure story, a screed against factory farming, an anti-capitalist satire, a clownish comedy, and a twee fable a la Wes Anderson. The film, which simultaneously represents Netflix’s expansion into Korea and Joon-ho’s expansion into Hollywood, displays the type of bold and original ideas that can find funding outside the traditional studio system. Unfortunately, unlike Joon-ho’s first English-language film Snowpiercer, which cleverly used the cars of a train to make a fast-paced action film that commented deftly on the class system, Okja’s sprawling take on the world of factory farming and corporate greed fails to translate.
We begin the film in the mountains of Korea where a young girl named Mija (An Seo Hyun) is helping her grandfather raise an elephant-sized pig named Okja. Okja is part of a worldwide experiment commissioned by the film’s Monsanto stand-in Mirando (subtle the film is not). Dubbed the “Best Super Pig Competition”, the contest is the brain-child of Mirando CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) – a narcissistic child far more obsessed with her image and reputation than with company policy – and involves Mirando lending out a mutant piglet to 26 farmers around the world to raise for ten years. According to Mirando these super pigs eat less, create less waste and produce far more meat than normal pigs. As evidenced by a moment early in the film in which Mija falls off a cliff and Okja catches her with a rope, they’re also intelligent tool-users. Strangely enough, that intelligence doesn’t come up again, even as the film debates the morality of eating them.
When the ten years are up and Mirando’s spokesman Dr. Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives to take Okja back to New York for the big pig awards show, Mija is distraught. Not because she understands that the whole Super Pig Competition was just a cynical corporate publicity stunt, but simply because Okja is her only friend. This kicks off a globe hopping adventure, as Mija follows the Mirando trucks back to Seoul, gets help from a group of radicals calling themselves the Animal Liberation Front, and eventually becomes the new spokesman for Mirando, all in a desperate attempt to get back her beloved super pig. On paper it’s the type of big, feel-good adventure story that proliferated cinema in the 90s, however this film has a darker streak at its core.
Of course Mirando’s plan isn’t to simply hand out medals to the special pigs and call it a day, their plan is to harvest them for meat (gasp), and in the film’s second half this fact comes to the fore in an off-putting tonal shift. As Okja arrives in New York, she’s taken into a Mirando laboratory and, thanks to a secret camera fitted beneath her ear by ALF leader Jay (Paul Dano) the horrors of genetic modification are exposed. Suddenly the film is vacillating between broad comedy one minute, and shocking animal abuse the next. A scene in which Okja is forced to breed with a hulking super pig named Alfonse is especially unsettling as, before that point, the film could conceivably be a kids movie.
This sudden change in tone is made more off-putting by the fact that the film has only two realistic characters, Okja and Mija. The rest of the performances are broad and clownish, something that works alright in the fun-filled first half, but suddenly feels out of place and inappropriate as the tone shifts darker. Even worse is the dialogue, which tries very hard to be funny but – like a comic slowly bombing on stage – that appearance of effort has the opposite effect. Each of the film’s main characters, Tilda Swinton’s Lucy Mirando, Paul Dano’s Jay and Jake Gyllenhall’s Dr. Johnny get at least one long, exposition filled monologue that grinds the film to a halt. None of them are good, but Gyllenhall’s is the worst. His scene, in which he delivers an unhinged speech while taking meat samples out of Okja’s flesh is something I don’t ever need to think about, let alone see, again.
Add to this some very odd music choices (the polka-esque brass beneath a number of the film’s chase scenes makes them feel farcical) and the scatter-shot moral message that comes across as more insulting than enlightening, and the whole thing feels more like a messy first draft than a finished film. While the relationship between Okja and Mija is heartwarming, and the film’s clownish corporate culture intriguing, it suffers when it attempts to comment on the real world. Despite his impressive imagination, the muddle of tones, weak dialogue, and cringe-worthy performances make Bong Joon-ho’s satire feel overcooked and ham-fisted.
Reviewed by Evan Arppe.