I don’t mean to brag, I really don’t. But I feel fortunate to be one of the lucky few to see a theatrical screening of Okja, the newest film from writer/director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host).Since Okja was co-financed by Netflix it will be released on their digital platform, therefore the only places to see it theatrically are in New York, Los Angeles, at Cannes, or upon invitation to see it at a promotional screening. I bring this up for two reasons. First, because I absolutely adore the time honored and engrossing theatrical experience. Secondly, this film literally looks amazing. Bong is a world-class visual stylist and every shot of Okja reflects that. Viewing it on the “big screen” was a privilege and an opportunity to fully appreciate the stylized look of the film of which some details may go unnoticed on a laptop, phone, or television screen.
The film opens on a hyperkinetic product launch by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the scion of a struggling bio-technical agro corporation. Mirando, in an effort to rebrand her company, announces the creation of the “super pig” and outlines the launch of a global “state fair” esque contest where participants will compete to produce the finest super pig. A super piglet will be given to each competing farmer to raise using their native farming methods. Then after ten years, Mirando will showcase the best super pig at a celebration in New York. This sequence is stunning both in its energy and affinity for the absurd and sets the viewer up for the outlandish events to come (imagine if Snowpiercer had started with the classroom scene). Part of this energy comes from the exuberance Swinton is showing as Lucy, which in any other film would likely be the biggest performance of the entire movie.
But Okja isn’t any other film. Enter Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), the film’s send up of a Jack Hanna-type media figure. Wilcox is wound tighter than a ball of twine, and Gyllenhaal really takes it there. The actor’s characterization of Dr. Johnny is one of the most insane acting choices in any film from recent memory. Gyllenhaal’s Dr. Johnny speaks in an unnaturally high, squeaky tone, sports an impressive moustache, and has a penchant for, shall we say, crotch-accentuating shorts; these choices and others push the boundaries of believability even within this heightened reality, but Bong absolutely manages to make it work within the context of the film for maximum comedic impact. It is used so well that it has convinced me that Bong could have made Jared Leto’s cackling, grill wearing Joker into a cohesive and interesting villain (a feat previously thought to be impossible).
The film jumps forward almost ten years, taking us to a mountainous region South Korea. There we meet Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and Okja, the titular super pig. Okja is somewhere between a pig and a hippopotamus with the personality of a loyal dog. They are clearly very close as we watch the girl and her super pig frolic and play among the idyllic surroundings of their home. Ahn is perfectly cast as Mija, bringing that mix of awe and the refusal to be defeated that only a child protagonist can cling to.
This serenity is soon interrupted by representatives from Mirando appearing at their mountaintop home, including Dr. Johnny who is drenched with sweat and gasping for air (this entrance is going to be difficult to top as one of the funniest scenes of the year). Okja is declared to be the best super pig and is to be whisked away to New York for the pageant.
Mija escapes to Seoul to save Okja and runs into the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The guerilla activist group is led by Jay (Paul Dano) and they have uncovered information about the super pigs and Mirando that they are determined to expose. Jay struggles to stay true to the ALF’s rules while expressing his aggression towards Mirando and their ilk. Dano brings the same earnestness we saw from him in last year’s Swiss Army Man, however this film uses it to a much different effect. Dano’s ability to bring this kind of complexity to a supporting character makes Jay much more well-rounded than similar characters in other films.
The rest of the film is a series of chase scenes and set pieces as the ALF and Mija tangle with Mirando. The film loses a bit of steam as it nears the end, but the final act after the climax of the film is necessary both as resolution and to drive home the thematic message of the film.
Beyond the filmmaking, engaging story, and characters, Okja has specific point of view regarding the intersection of science, animal rights, and capitalism. To the film’s credit, Bong takes a more nuanced stance on these issues than expected. Yes, Okja will make some meat eaters very uncomfortable, but it is wholly in service to the film’s ideas and never falls into the side of gratuity. Bong refuses to fully condemn GMOs and the like in his film, but shows they are not without consequence and suggests that they ought be used judiciously to solve the current food crisis and reduce the amount of suffering for both animals and humans. It is a thoughtful and interesting angle on the topic and has stuck with me since walking out of the screening.
Okja is an achievement. Once again, Bong Joon-ho skillfully juggles a wide variety of tones and genres seemingly with ease, impressive when so many films struggle to establish a single mood, let alone several across the same story. While many films seek to further understand the human experience, this one focuses on the super pig experience as a means to explore the consequences (and growing necessity?) of tweaking with mother nature as well as the value of lives that are human or otherwise. And it provides a fun break from reality to boot. There is so much to like about this film and it currently stands as one of my favorite films of the year thus far.
Okja is available on Netflix today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.