Directed By: Bong Joon-ho
Written By: Bong Joon-ho and Jon Ronson
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ahn Seo-hyun, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito
The opening scene of Bong Joon-ho’s Okja sees a slideshow performed by Lucy Mirando, head of the agrochemical Mirando corporation (played by Tilda Swinton), in which she details her company’s plan to grow and develop, via all-natural means, the world’s first batch of super pigs. There are 26 super pigs, each will be assigned to a farm inhabited by a different culture for a period of 10 years, with the healthiest and most handsome super pig being paraded and showcased before it’s eventually dissected and fed to the world’s starving masses. The scheme is an attempt to recoup Mirando’s image which has been tarnished through a non-specific history of cruelty during the tenures of Lucy’s father and sister. The “all-natural” part is a lie, and the presentation boasts a coy sensiblity. It’s an ostensibly amicable and friendly performance, accompanied by a light and easy-listening acoustic backdrop that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jason Reitman teen dramedy, and strewn with face aching smiles, verbal back patting, and a polite can-do energy—if we didn’t know any better, we’d say it was all a little insincere. This super pig stunt, we’re further told, is entirely in the name of humanitarianism: these animals will leave a smaller footprint, produce less excretions, and, most importantly, “they’ll need to taste f#$%ing good”. I beg your pardon?
In the scenes that immediately follow, set ten years later, a young girl named Mija roams the lush, seductive South Korean vistas with the eponymous super pig assigned to her grandfather’s farm. Together, the two forage for food, embrace one another, and revel in their mutual companionship— illustrations of tranquillity and warmth— this until a moment of innocuous petering suddenly transforms into a nail-biting sequence upon a cliff’s edge, where said young girl dangles precariously from a leash fixed to her creaturely friend.
Such is the delightfully wrong-footing nature of Okja—from a phoney passage of corporate damage control, laced with sarcasm and faux benevolence, comes a gut-smacking, blindsiding, profanity which singlehandedly ushers an air of nastiness into what appears to be an otherwise run of the mill capitalist satire; from a passage of serenity and calm stems an intense, do-or-die set piece which foreshadows the action driven chaos to come. It’s the watermark of Bong Joon-ho’s malleable adventure saga, the most unpredictable and tonally dexterous film to hit screens since Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, turning 90 degree corners at a 100 miles an hour without ever losing its traction.
It’s been a somewhat turbulent ride for Joon-ho’s latest— ultimately cheered, however initially booed at Cannes due to its distributer’s (Netflix) business model. Netflix has quickly unendeared itself with movie going traditionalists, particularly with those more militant, a la Cannes attendees. “It’s not real cinema” some have scoffed, with the streaming service distribution stripping the film of its big screen prospects. If ever the purist’s grievance was felt, it’s with Okja, a film which begs to be seen on the largest screen possible, boasting a towering scale and tantalising visual majesty as it does. It’s a distinctly cinematic feature, one which calls to mind the epic, larger-than-life stylings of a Disney movie in its bold imagination and central conceit of an unlikely union between child and otherworldly creature.
And yet, from glimpses of corporate satire and Disneyesque bravado, spawn episodes of high octane action-adventure, and sterling heist movie thrills. These elements arise when Mija finds herself aligned with the Animal Liberation Front (headed by Paul Dano’s Jay), in an attempt to thwart Okja’s slaughter; the ALF are a benevolent group of animal loving crusaders who we first meet among a spectacular ploy executed using little else but umbrellas and marbles.
The film then shifts into further gears of satire, targeting corporations once more as well as nailing an anti-meat flag firmly to the mast, an inevitable subtext given the story’s machinations. Somehow all of this is impressively underpinned by a lingering comedic flair, the film’s slapstick dispostion liable to rear its head at any improbable moment.
What director Joon-ho has fashioned, then, is a means of pivoting tirelessly between genres with a miraculous grace— the result is a film that’s intoxicating without being disorientating.
There are occasional tonal mishaps however, a tendancy towards didacticism when the film takes its stand against corporate greed for one, and a miscalculated performance from a generally well calculated performer in Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal takes the form of a shrill Joker/Hunter S. Thompson/Nigel Thornberry hybrid via zoologist and face of the Mirando Corporation Johnny Wilcox. It’s a performance from Gyllenhaal which doesn’t so much chew the scenery as swallow it and heave it back up for all to see, the apparent product of a momentary lack of discipline. Th excessiveness of the Wilcox character is felt doubly in the presence of Seo-hyun’s Mija, a grounded and minimalist performance which serves as a much needed point of anchorage for the film, whilst Tilda Swinton meanwhile straddles a tightrope between those two poles, showy and mannered, but accessing a fundamental humanism and insecurity all the while.
For all of its tonal ambitions, disregard for playbooks, and unhinged characters however, in the end Okja’s greatest joys lie in its ability to do that number one thing that movies should do: it entertains. Bong Joon-ho takes his viewer on a journey, where boredom is a strict impossibility, and seizes the imagination with an acute originality and verve, a notion which often feels novel in a period otherwise defined by sequels and rehashes. Those fundamental pleasures offered by Joon-ho are pleasures which, thankfully, transcend screen size.