OnScreen Review: 'Okja'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

After expanding its original content catalog for TV shows, Netflix has recently begun to expand its original content for feature films after making a handful over the past few years. Okja is the latest; a film from renowned South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Bong is a director who is known for mixing tones, blending genres, and healthy doses of socio-political commentary into his films, which include The Host and Snowpiercer, and Okja is no exception.

This time around, Bong is tackling the business practices of multi-national corporations; in particular, the mass production of food and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The corporation at the center of everything here is called the Mirando Corporation. Its CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces in 2007 that the company has successfully bred new superpiglets that are environmentally friendly and will help solve global hunger in the long run. In the meantime, they have sent out 26 of these superpigs to farmers around the world and a winner will be announced in 10 years. In present day South Korea, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) lives in the mountains with her grandfather and their superpig, Okja. Okja is not just a pet to Mija, but more like a best friend. When Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives and announces that Okja is the winner of the Mirando Corp contest, Okja is taken away. Against nearly impossible odds, Mija leaves to go get Okja back, traveling to Seoul and eventually New York City in her adventure. Along the way, she is aided by members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and their leader Jay (Paul Dano).

On a surface level, it would be easy to dismiss this film as a propaganda piece against the consumption of meat and corporate greed. To be sure, there is plenty of corporate greed on display in the Mirando Corp board room, but there is also a level of desperation for image re-branding by Swinton’s Lucy Mirando. By her own admission, her father was not a great person, and she has an ongoing feud with her sister, from whom she has apparently wrested control of the company. The superpig contest is an attempt to rehab the image of the company and be more profitable, but without really changing any of the practices of the company. It’s essentially like putting lipstick on a pig (pun intended). The glimpses that Bong gives about the exploitation of these animals, the manner in which they are treated, and the eye-opening conditions of the slaughterhouses are purposefully unsettling, and, if I was not such a meat lover, it may have been enough to make me consider giving up meat. There are also a few instances of visual and verbal satire, including a recreation of the picture of the Obama and his White House staff watching the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. To be sure, Bong is definitely challenging some delicate sensibilities of Western, capitalist cultures.

While this is the backdrop of the story, it is not the heart of the story. And it’s ultimately not a propaganda film. After all, Mija’s favorite food is a chicken stew that her grandfather makes. The main heart of the story is the bond between Mija and Okja. Okja is a film that shares as many parallel themes with Black Beauty, Free Willy, or Babe as it does with Syriana, Silkwood, or a Michael Moore documentary. Okja, a superpig, essentially looks like a pig crossed with a hippo. The opening scenes of Mija and Okja enjoying the idyllic Korean countryside are terrific and reminded me of some of the moments between Mowgli and Baloo in the 2016 version of Disney’s The Jungle Book. Okja is more than just a pet though. There are clear signs in the animals of intelligence beyond that of a typical animal. An early scene where Mija is in peril shows Okja demonstrating a capacity for problem solving and improvisation to save her. It’s more than just anthropomorphism on the part of Bong and co-writer Jon Ronson; the actions of Okja and other superpigs, including one heart-wrenching moment near the end of the film, suggest that these creatures, which have been genetically modified, are self-aware and intelligent creatures.

None of it would work without the superb performance of Ahn Seo-Hyun as Mija. She is the heart and soul of this picture. Her determination to do whatever it takes to rescue her friend is rivaled by perhaps only Wonder Woman and her determination to end World War I by defeating her nemesis. Given that Mija is all of 12 years old, both tasks seem equally daunting in their respective films. And yet both are equal to the task. Mija refuses to let anything stand in her way. Whether that means running full tilt at a wall of glass in an office building in Seoul, only to have it not wobble and send her to the ground in a thud, or whether that means holding onto a harness on Okja as she goes careening through a mall, she will not give up. Her single-mindedness makes her one of my favorite characters of 2017.

She is supported by Dano’s Jay and other members of the ALF. Dano is an actor I run hot and cold on depending on the role. He’s very good here as a high-minded leader who struggles to maintain his composure at times, but does have the best of intentions. Steve Yeun of “The Walking Dead” fame is also a member of the group. His is the best supporting role, as a person of Korean descent who can speak both languages in a film that is in English and Korean, and the advantage that gives him over everyone else. Lily Collins has a small supporting role in the group as well. While many people will be quick to point out the anti-corporate aspects of the film, Bong does not exempt these animal freedom fighters from satire. One of them has to continually be told to eat something because he insists on leaving the smallest carbon footprint imaginable.

Swinton is a phenomenal actress who appeared in heavy makeup and awful teeth for Bong’s Snowpiercer. She returns this time with, sporting braces in the opening scene, no less! Surprisingly, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is one of the toughest to swallow here, as his disgraced Dr. Johnny is a weird amalgamation of 70% Richard Simmons, 20% Woody Allen, and 10% of a Steve Irwin/Jack Hannah type. It’s the type of performance sure to polarize viewers. I was surprised to find myself a little down on it as Gyllenhaal is one of my favorite current actors. Giancarlo Esposito also has a supporting role as one of the head honchos of Mirando Corp. and Shirley Henderson is Lucy’s mousy but pushy assistant.

Okja is a satirical adventure film with a surprising amount of heart too. It takes a Mija and Okja to hell (on earth) and back, almost literally. Bong Joon-ho has made yet another film that challenges his audience, but has also made a film that has a sweet story of friendship and devotion at the heart of it. Okja is a definite achievement for Netflix and a film worth seeing, even if it may turn you off to ham, bacon, and pork for a while.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars