In Okja, released on Netflix earlier this week, director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiecer) tells the story of a young Korean girl and a genetically enhanced pig in a tale of consumption, mass production, and the global, but American-fueled food industrial complex.
With hope of finding advances in food production technology, a big and bad corporation has engineered and created 26 “super-pigs” for a long-term experiment. Each pig will be sent to farmers across the world to be raised in diverse, but always sustainable, conditions (corporate-social responsibility and all that). After 10 years, the pigs will compete to be the best super-pig in a contest put on by the Mirando Corporation and its public face, TV personality Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal).
One of the pigs, Okja, is raised on a South Korean farm where she is free to roam unbothered in an isolated, mountainous region. Okja is an instantly lovable, giant pig, amicable and playful and a wonderous CGI creation. The farmer’s granddaughter, Mija (a fantastic Ahn Seo-hyun), grows up with Okja and forms a familial bond that the Mirando Corporation and its eccentric leader (Tilda Swinton) will inevitably complicate. When the ten-year period ends and Okja is selected as the best super-pig of the lot, Mirando comes to claim its creation for a major product launch. Mija, devastated by the loss of her friend, sets out to save her pig from the hands of the corporate menace.
Yes, it definitely sounds odd, and it is certainly that, but also much more. Okja is clearly anti-meat in general but also has plenty to say about corporate greed, humanity, and trust, while still finding the time for breathtaking set pieces and a fun cast of characters. The commentary is a bit on the nose but beyond the obvious themes, there is a darkness and wild ambition about the film that makes it engrossing from start to finish.
In a major surprise, Jake Gyllenhaal gives an uneven performance and for the first time in what feels like forever, a cast that delivers across the board outshines him. It’s not all on Gyllenhaal, as his character, Dr. Johnny Wilcox, is given little to do and is a template instead of a character. The part is written in such a way that Wilcox lacks the bite required to be relevant or compelling. Coupled with the odd performance, Wilcox disrupts several scenes that otherwise would have worked.
Thankfully, there is far too much to like (and just so much going on) in Okja to dwell on a single performance. Bong’s latest effort doesn’t hit all the right notes but the high level of difficulty mostly excuses the execution. It all makes for an imperfect, beautifully shot, enjoyable satire that could never be mistaken as tepid.