Netflix grabbed up a score with their latest original movie, Bong Joon Ho’s Okja, the director's first film since 2013’s fantastic Snowpiercer.
The world is running low on food sources and it’s only a matter of years before good food becomes hard to come by. With this in mind, The Miranda Corporation begins to research and creates a new species of animal — a super-pig. The company hands one baby out to the world's best farmers around the globe in hopes of one of them raising it to perfection. One super-pig ends up with Mija, played wonderfully by Seo-Hyun Ahn. Mija raises this super-pig, named Okja, with her father in the high mountains of South Korea. After ten years pass, Mija and Okja have become great companions - best friends even - but The Miranda Corporation comes back to retrieve their property. When Okja is taken, Mija will stop at nothing to save her best friend.
The plot of Okja sounds like a family movie, and while watching, it can often feel like a Studio Ghibli film. It has this magical world of wonder, with a plot built on the strong relationship between a human girl and a fantasy creature. The early scenes of the movie show the two bonding and going about their day with little-to-no communication. It reminded me of My Neighbour Totoro from Studio Ghibli, because, as much as Okja is cute, she is also a big creature that could very easily kill young Mija.
Despite this sweet relationship, you shouldn’t go into Okja expecting a family film. Although it’s not as bloody and violent as Bong Joon Ho’s previous two films, Okja is still very much aimed at a mature audience. You will be very quickly dragged out of any idealistic images of family fun when characters start dropping F-bombs and the film enters its violent and dark third act.
Mija and Okja’s relationship, and particularly Mija’s chase to save Okja, is one element of a deeply layered film. Heavily embroiled in animal rights and seemingly vegetarianism views, Okja will make you question your own dietary choices. By the film's end, I was wondering how hard it would be to give up meat, which demonstrates the film’s impactful storytelling, given the central animal character is — even if based on a pig — a fictional species.
Bong Joon Ho’s plot takes a very satirical look at the way big companies operate in the United States of America. Tilda Swinton plays the CEO of Mirando Corp, Lucy Miranda, a somewhat day-dreaming character, lost in a world where she doesn’t seem to belong. Jake Gyllenhaal gives his most outlandish performance as the TV face of Miranda Corp, Johnny Wilcox. Adding to the mixture of corporate and social justice issues is the introduction of Jay, played by Paul Dana, who leads the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) in an attempt to shut down Miranda Corp and unveil its poor treatment of animals.
Okja has a lot of plates spinning and faces identity issues at times. While it often feels like a fun family adventure, at some points it comes across like a thesis from Bong Joon Ho. This muddled approach fortunately doesn’t affect the overall enjoyment of the film, especially if you are somewhat naive to the underlying stories and messages being told. Remaining oblivious to the stark reality of the meat and livestock industry becomes increasingly hard towards the end of the film, as Ho more or less slams his message and ideas in the audience's face.
Okja would be nothing without the fantastic performances given by the entire cast. The young Seo-Hyun Ahn is a particular stand-out, played wonderfully with the CGI Okja. This emotionally-driven performance is the driving force for the movie and without the emotional bond she portrays towards Okja, it's possible the movie just wouldn’t work.
I cried several times in Okja, but I also laughed out loud a lot and found several abrupt laughs, mainly from the delivery of some of Jake Gyllenhaal’s lines. Okja is an emotional ride that left me deep in thought as the credits rolled. If anything, Okja is a standout in originality for the year so far. Bong Joon Ho's latest delivers a mature and provocative adventure brimming with character.