Sometimes, it isn’t easy to be objective about a very subjective artform like film, but I always try to be open about any biases I may have in an attempt to move past them. First, I’ve been trying to make it clear just how passionate I am about the New Wave of South Korean Cinema, and I’ve been championing director Bong Joon-ho for several years now. Second, I’m almost predestined to like anything that happens to have Tilda Swinton or Paul Dano, let alone both. Finally, this is yet another hot Anna Swando joint, and you know I’m ALL about that.
Bong Joon-ho’s latest film, Okja, got into some weird controversy around the time of the Cannes Film Festival. I won’t delve into it too deep, but it was booed for being a Netflix film, causing the Cannes committee to decide that Netflix films in the future would not be able to compete, which feels a bit like old people not liking new things to me, but whatever.
Let’s set up this film.
The Mirando Corporation (led by Lucy Mirando, played by Tilda Swinton) has been working on breeding a genetic “superpig”. Twenty-six of these superpigs are sent out to various countries to be raised individually, and a special winner will be chosen in ten years time.
This is where we meet our protagonist and title character. The ten years have passed, and Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her superpig (Okja) are the best of friends. They are visited by Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a camera crew who have come to check in on the pig, and Okja is announced the winner of the competition. Mija’s grandfather had been lying to her about what would happen to Okja, claiming he would buy her but instead bought a solid gold pig statue. Once Mija realizes that her friend is gone, she goes off to rescue her.
I THINK THAT SHOULD BE ENOUGH FOR YOU TO GO WATCH IT YOURSELF, SO HERE’S THE SPOILER WARNING.
Mija sees Okja being loaded onto a truck in Seoul and chases after. That truck is intercepted by the Animal Liberation Front, led by a man called Jay (Paul Dano). Along with K (Steven Yeun), Red (Lily Collins), and their fellow ALF members, they are able to rescue both Okja and Mija. Jay explains that their plan is to deliberately let Okja be recaptured, but with recording equipment implanted so that they can reveal the horrors of the Mirando Corporation to the whole world. Mija is given the choice to follow through or be returned to her home, and she naturally chooses the latter. However, K lies about the translation and tells the group that she wants to help them.
Back in New York, footage of Mija and Okja from Seoul has gone viral, and the Mirando Corporation wants to bring the young girl in to be a new face for the company. Okja is forcibly bred to another one of the superpigs, and a drunken Wilcox extracts some flesh from her in order to sample. All of this is witnessed by the ALF, who are horrified at the events taking place.
At the big celebration, Mija and Okja are to be reunited in front of everyone. Okja, under much stress, goes to attack Mija out of confusion. Jay and the ALF begin their plan to hijack the presentation, and Jay tries to save the girl from her confused friend, but she stops him from attacking Okja for long enough to be recognized. The three of them try to escape with the help of their allies, but they lose Okja in the chase.
As Lucy’s twin, Nancy (that’s right, two Tildas), begins to take over the company, the ALF and Mija try one last time to rescue Okja. They find a massive slaughterhouse where the superpigs are being herded into, and Mija finds a way into it when she sees Okja forced in. Just before Okja is killed, Mija is able to plead the worker into waiting with a picture of the two of them growing up. Nancy shows up and demands the pig be killed, but Mija offers her golden pig in return, which Nancy accepts. Mija and Okja return back home to South Korea to live in peace.
WELL NOW THAT THE EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER OF SPOILERS IS DONE, LET’S KEEP MOVING.
Sometimes, it’s fairly easy to spot a film that will not appeal to everyone for various reasons, and Okja is definitely that. Considering that I have seen every Bong Joon-ho film so far, I’m very well accustomed to his style and his tone, so it wasn’t a surprise to me at all. If this was someone’s first experience with him (or with South Korean cinema in general), it’s entirely reasonable to be uncomfortable with it.
Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal are both playing it very broadly, but that absolutely works in this film, and I think the film demands these sorts of eccentric characters on one end to bring perspective into the simple and pure relationship of a young girl and her animal friend. Paul Dano is always great in pretty much everything he’s ever been in, and this is no exception. Talented people like Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, and Giancarlo Esposito also get limited runs with the spotlight, but the real star is young Ahn Seo-hyun. Child actors who are capable dialogue readers without being obnoxiously precocious are not easy to come by, but her character is nothing but sincere; she’s the only real reason we have to follow the film.
Okja is by far the best Netflix film since 2015’s Beasts Of No Nation.
That Anna Swando girl? She’s got another winner on her hands.