This film was on my ‘must-watch’ list for so many reasons. Okay, mostly because I’ve enjoyed the other films I’ve watched from director Bong Joon Ho (봉준호) including Snowpiercer (설국열차) and The Host (괴물), two of his better-known films. Add in the fact that it was funded by Netflix and competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and there was no way I was missing it. Luckily, it’s available on Netflix for your viewing pleasure but I caught it at TIFF’s Bell Lightbox theatre during their week-long double bill special promotion – each night you could watch both Okja and another of Bong’s films. I watched it with Memories of Murder (살인의 추억) which is another good film but very different from Okja.
The Mirando Corporation, now led by Lucy Mirando, is trying to polish its image, tarnished by the business practices of other members of her family, with a contest to see which of 26 farmers around the world could grow the best ‘super pig’. Fast forward ten years and we see Mija, a young Korean girl who along with her grandfather have raised Okja, one of the super pigs. When members of the Mirando Corp come to visit, along with TV personality Johnny Wilcox, they declare that Okja ‘won’ the competition and then ship Okja off to New York against the wishes of Mija.
Mija, heartbroken with losing her friend, rushes after them to Seoul to try to rescue Okja. Enter the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) who are also looking for Okja but for different reasons. Mija, however, continues to try to free Okja following her to New York. And that’s when things really get interesting…
Beyond the fact that Okja, the character not the film, looks more like the cross between a dog and an elephant than a pig, the first thing about this film that impressed me was the CGI of the character. It was impressive throughout the film. Plus Okja was loveable and so very human in her interactions and expressions, that I, along with the rest of the audience I suspect, was rooting for her right from the start. I did wonder, briefly, why anyone on a mountain top would have a farm, let along raise a giant ‘super pig’ because the logistics baffled me a bit but the question didn’t detract from the film.
The mountainside, however, was a nice visual counterpoint to the rest of the film. Serene mountainside is where good things happen, cities are were large, uncaring corporations do evil deeds. We see this right from the start with the pageantry of the opening scene in NY where Lucy talks about the misdeeds of her family which is immediately contrasted against the pastoral sweetness of the scene when the film moves to the mountainside in Korea, and the friendship of Okja and Mija.
Speaking of Mija, played with such innocence and strength by Ahn Seo-Hyun (안서현), the interactions between her and Okja, their relationship, is what truly elevates this film and makes it worth watching. From the cliff scene near the start of the film to the world’s cutest hug, we see the bond of love and trust between ‘super pig’ and the young girl. But as sweet as that part of the film is, I like that Mija’s innocence isn’t translated into stupidity nor a lack of understanding about what Okja is. She knows that Okja is the property of a monster corporation and tries to buy her from them when representatives of Mirando come to claim Okja. When that fails, she sets out to rescue Okja with intelligence that belies her young age. And that is the strength of the film for me – these two characters, their love, trust and commitment… and intelligence.
But while the film gives those two such stellar characteristics, the rest of the ensemble cast are nuts. Each in their own way perhaps but wow, were there ever a lot of characters that were like insane caricatures. It works though in a film so heavy in satire, mostly because everyone from Lucy, played by Tilda Swinton (who also plays her twin sister Nancy) to Johnny Wilcox played by Jake Gyllenhaal to the leader of the ALF, Jay played by Paul Dano, is equally off-the-wall nuts. Although my vote goes to Johnny for the ugliest for what he does to Okja (still shuddering). Hats off though to the actors for their performances as cray as they were.
Least you think it’s all violence, crazy-ass characters and disturbing scenes, and it’s certainly not a film for kids with the violence. It’s not. Interspersed with the violence is so much more – but I have to say, that one scene that Johnny perpetrates on Okja is a bit much. (I was left thinking “Was that necessary, how does one even dream that up? Was it just another way to convince us she was human-like?) In addition to the charm and sweetness of Okja and Mija’s relationship, there’s a lot of comedy in the film and that keeps the film from getting too preachy or disturbing, although it certainly is the latter. The unexpected comedic moments – like those provided by the Mirando truck driver played by Choi Woo-Shik (최우식) – balanced the film out but I still think it’s one of is the craziest, most disturbing films I’ve watched in ages. And that’s saying a lot.
One issue I did have with the film was the contradiction in Mija’s behaviour. It’s beyond obvious that Bong is tackling the industrial food complex (the slaughterhouse scene, the comment from Lucy “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it.”), so I found it interesting that while Mija went all out to rescue her friend Okja, she still ate meat. It didn’t really stand out while I was watching the film but as I started thinking of the film, I remembered that she caught and cooked a fish for dinner near the start and apparently her favourite food was chicken soup/stew. It’s almost like Okja was human and as her best friend, nor longer an animal, but the ‘natural’ animals were okay to eat. But leaving that dichotomy aside, the members of the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) took protecting animals and not eating meat to the extreme so I guess it all balanced out. Still… it raises a question about the underlying message of the film but perhaps I’m reading too much into it.
I laughed, I cried – ah, the tears when the super pig parents toss their baby under the fence to Okja & Mija to save it – and I was frequently wondering what the f… but I was always entertained. It was a wild and disturbing ride that makes you think on a variety of topics. Funny and even sweet at times, the film is fascinating while also being incredibly disturbing on many levels. Probably not for everyone, certainly not for kids despite how cute Okja is, and you may not want to eat right afterwards, but it’s definitely a film I would recommend. There’s just so much to like despite a few issues I had. Oh, and you’re going to want to watch to the end of the credits.