Director: Bong Joon-ho Starring: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhall, Steven Yeun Running Time: 120 minutes
As the medium of film is explored further and further, filmmakers are discovering new and innovative ways to tell the stories that they want to tell. As a result, larger and more complex themes can be explored in 90-120 minute segments at a level that was never thought possible. Over the past few years, science fiction and animation have been able to tell us more about our humanity and morality than most other genres: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Pixar’s Up explored what it meant to be lonely, Wall-E offered a glimpse into the trajectory and repercussions of modern western lifestyles, District 9 explored social stratification under the facade of an action movie, and 2001: A Space Odyssey explored mankind itself… period! Taking all of this into account, it shouldn’t really surprise you to know that Bong Joon-Ho’s (The Host, Snowpiercer) newest movie Okja revolves around a giant, mutant, grey pig, yet tackles such themes as consumerism, capitalism and greed. What will surprise you, however, is just how spectacularly beautiful the movie is.
Okja is a 500 pound super pig who is created in the laboratories of agri-chemical corporation Mirando Corp, reared in the Korean mountains and used as part of a well-constructed marketing ploy that sees 26 such pigs grown organically throughout the world before being brought back and unveiled to the American people. Super pigs are gigantic (resembling hippos more than pigs), produce less excretion and, as Mirando’s CEO (Tilda Swinton) puts it, “taste f***ing good”. After 10 years pass, Okja is taken away from her quiet life in Korea with owner and friend Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and brought back to America, leaving Mija and the A.L.F (Animal Liberation Front) to travel the world to bring her back and unmask Mirando’s true intentions, in this Netflix original movie.
Like the titular super pig herself, there’s so much of Okja to adore. The blend of CGI and puppetry brings our super pig to life in such a convincing way that it’s easy to forget the animal isn’t real. This, coupled with the story of a young heroine fighting to protect a cute creature that she forms a bond with, calls back to the likes of ET. Despite the resemblance, however, Okja is certainly far from a kid’s film. As the story progresses (ironically when they leave the scenic mountain tops of Korea for the busy highways of Seoul and New York), the amount of cursing increases, the film becomes more violent and some disturbing imagery is utilised by the director in order to truly convey his message.
This transition from child-like wonder to upsetting and grim territory is perhaps best understood when you see it as a story-telling tool. The first 20-30 minutes offers us glimpses into the life that Okja has enjoyed for the last 10 years. The bucolic setting is full of life and light, where a certain co-dependency exists between all life on the mountain: a particular scene sees the young Mija hunting for fish with Okja, discovering that she has taken too many from the lake and releasing them back into the water, as if to highlight the importance of equilibrium and balance in the world. Once Okja leaves the mountain, the truth is unveiled, as the consumeristic and profit-driven Mirando Corporation make a habit of draining resources dry in order to feed the world’s many mouths. Suddenly the trees are made of plastic, light burns from a copper coil and the world feels carved and shaped by greed. The message becomes clear at this point, thanks to Joon-Ho’s incredible direction, intelligent script and masterful world-building: Okja is yet another resource.
It is easy to misinterpret the message that Okja conveys as ‘vegan propaganda’. However, this isn’t true. While capitalism and the meat industry (to some extent) serve as the villains of the piece, Joon-Ho’s script doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to its characters: A daring rescue attempt carried out by the A.L.F sees the group’s members hurl sand and marbles at their pursuers before apologising for any inconvenience they may have caused; Lucy Mirando is an insecure yet self-obsessed tyrant who blurs the line between wanting to cure the world and control it; and Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), the corporation’s public persona and face of the company, is a man slowly realising his own insignificance in a world that once adored him. The characters’ flaws are brought to light through the use of some dark humour and sharp satire, helping Joon-Ho’s efforts to build the world in which he will tell his story. It also doesn’t hurt having Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, Steven Yeun and Paul Dano bringing their usual best, and a great lead performance from Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija.
With all of this working in its favour, Okja is effective in conveying its message and telling its tale. This carefully constructed fable shows us how true beauty can be treated by the many horrors of the modern world and, for a film set between Korea and the U.S., what the universal language is and will always be: money. Okja is compelling, insightful, emotional and beautiful adult entertainment, and an absolute must-see for all movie-lovers.(5 / 5)