We gave it a B
Mainstream cinema seems to be getting less and less hospitable to filmmakers with original voices. Idiosyncrasy doesn’t sell apparently. Maybe that’s why so many visionary directors are defecting to cable channels (David Lynch’s Twin Peaks on Showtime) and streaming services (Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down on Netflix) rather than being defanged by the studio system. South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho learned this lesson the hard way on his 2013 movie, Snowpiercer. That film, one of the greatest and most gonzo statements in recent memory, was distributed in the U.S. by The Weinstein Company—an indie company, sure, but in its own way just as skittish as any major. After seeing the finished film, the Weinsteins wanted to hack about 20 minutes from Bong’s masterpiece. But after critics got a peek at it, the response was so positive that they backed off. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that for his follow-up, the dizzying fantasia Okja, Bong’s planted his freak flag at Netflix—a deep-pocketed patron that wouldn’t mess with his vision.
On its surface, Okja is a sweet, heartwarming fable about a young girl and her pet pig. But don’t let that thumbnail synopsis fool you, we’re galaxies away from the kid-friendly entertainments of Babe and Charlotte’s Web here. The presence of Tilda Swinton in a platinum wig, pink lipstick, and braces on her teeth is the first tip-off. Swinton, who also hid beneath bizarre drag in Bong’s Snowpiercer, plays Lucy Mirando—the Orwellian CEO of a Monsanto-like agrochemical multinational called the Mirando Corporation. Plagued by bad PR, Lucy wants to rebrand her company by launching a worldwide contest for farmers across the globe to breed 26 Chilean “super piglets” that will be cheaper to raise and will help solve the world’s food shortages. Of course, altruism is the last thing on Lucy’s mind. A beloved, hyper-caffeinated TV zoologist named Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal letting loose—maybe too loose—with a helium-pitched Minnie Mouse voice), signs on to silence critics. The 26 super piglets are shipped off to 26 small farmers in 26 countries, where they’ll be raised for 10 years until the biggest, fattest, most succulent swine is deemed the winner. Not mentioned is what will then happen to said “winner.”
Skip forward 10 years, and we meet a button-cute teenage orphan girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyeon), who lives with her grandfather in the peaceful and remote mountains of South Korea. We also meet Okja—a bulldozer-sized behemoth who looks more like a hippo than a pig. With his gray elephant skin, flopsy hound-dog ears, and doe eyes, he’s an expressive CGI wonder who breaks wind in hurricane gusts of flatulence. Mija and Okja are best friends. They swim under waterfalls, frolic in the mossy green forest, and nuzzle and nap together. Then one day, Gyllenhaal and the Mirando team pay a visit to check on their mammoth super pig. The clear winner of the contest, Okja is ripped away from Mija and taken to Seoul then New York City for his big coronation. But the plucky Mija isn’t going to let her porcine playmate go without a fight.
Along the way, Okja gets kidnapped by a nonviolent and exceedingly polite (and cartoonishly inept) group of ecoterrorists led by Paul Dano, who has his own agenda for the pig. He’s out to expose Mirando’s nefarious practices, which leads to a madcap pig rampage in a Korean shopping mall (scored to John Denver’s “Annie’s Song”) and ultimately a gory glimpse inside Mirando’s nightmarish rendering plant. (Maybe it’s worth noting here that although the film is about a girl and her pig and isn’t rated, it’s most definitely not for kids). As with his fantastic 2006 monster mash-up The Host, Bong knows how to sneak a bigger allegorical message into his manic whirligig celluloid contraption—Okja feels like Fast Food Nation as directed by Terry Gilliam with The Smiths’ Meat is Murder playing on the soundtrack. But he doesn’t always seem in total control of all of his story’s competing tones. Some sequences work a lot better than others (and some just don’t work at all). Still, there are so many moments of insane weirdness and warmth, it’s hard to get too riled up about it. Is Oka a perfect film? No, not by a long shot. But the moviegoing world is a better place with Okja in it. It’s the antithesis of cookie-cutter, made-by-committee filmmaking. Prepare to be amazed, grossed out, provoked, punchdrunk, and tickled. Props to Netflix and all, but if you can, go and see it on a big screen. B