As someone whose childhood was scarred when the dog Old Yeller was put to death in the old Walt Disney movie of the same name, I approached Okja with hands partially covering my eyes. I relaxed just a bit when it became clear that, as an example of the animal-in-jeopardy film, this tale of a gigantic, genetically-mutated pig is a lot more than a heart-tugger. Okja, now streaming on Netflix, is a beautiful thriller, a comic screed against corporate greed, and the best use of special effects since that bear tried to sit on Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.
This South Korean-American film from writer-director Bong Joon-ho introduces us to Okja in a lush forest, where the creature — a huge animal that looks like a cross between pig, elephant, and hippopotamus — roams happily with the people who tend to her, and who love her: young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong). Mija doesn’t know that Okja is on loan: She belongs to the Mirando Corporation, whose laboratories initially bred her, and she will be used as food when she reaches maturity — a time that arrives near the start of the film.
Snatched from Mija by Mirando employees, Okja is transported to first South Korea and then America to be paraded in a publicity-stunt pig beauty pageant, and then ordered put to death by Mirando CEO Lucy Mirando, played with brittle imperiousness by Tilda Swinton. (Among Okja’s captors is Dr. Johnny Wilcox, who hosts an animal TV show for kiddies and is played with weird exaggeration by Jake Gyllenhaal.) Will Okja escape her fate? She will if the Animal Liberation Front — an activist group led by Paul Dano in a black suit and skinny tie — succeeds in freeing the creature.
Bong Joon-ho’s other films include the dystopian sci-fi of Snowpiercer (2013), the harrowing horror of The Host (2006), and the cold-blooded crime saga Memories of Murder (2003). He’s a master of genre, and much of Okja benefits from the way the director stages multiple chase scenes of the ALF’s attempts to liberate Okja, and the Mirando Corporation’s scramble to grab her back. Through it all, Mija clings onto one of Okja’s ears, whispering soothing words to the powerful but frightened “superpig.” The portrayal of Mija and the frequently gorgeous shots of Okja on the run reminded me of the cartoons of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away): There is a similar lyricism and insight into a child’s point of view in Okja.
For all this — and for all the ways in which this is a very funny movie — Okja is not necessarily a children’s film. Four-letter words are scattered freely throughout Okja, as adult characters sputter in frustration, and there is a grim, explicit, if brief run through a slaughterhouse that Dano’s Jay tells Mija she must avoid looking at. Perhaps parents will tell young viewers the same thing. That scene, Okja’s general support of animal rights, and the specifics of Lucy Mirando’s heartless corporate avarice all combine to lend Okja dramatic weight and purpose. If you’d like to view it this way, Okja is, thanks to the elegant-looking greed-heads played by Swinton and Giancarlo Esposito (Better Call Saul), a critique of capitalism as ruthless butchery. But it is the many ravishing depictions of Okja’s life with Mija — the beauty the film finds in even so large and ungainly a creature — that make Okja such a transfixing experience.
Okja is streaming now on Netflix.
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