In rural South Korea, a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) enjoys an idyllic life with Okja, a genetically-modified ‘superpig’, as a companion. But when Okja’s inventor, Mirando Corporation CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), demands she return to New York for a PR stunt, a fight for her freedom arises.
At this year’s Cannes, Okja became the unwitting whipping-pig for a furious and timely debate. Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho’s latest film, screened in competition, was picked up by Netflix. The streaming giant opted not to release it theatrically, to the chagrin of traditionalists. A chorus of boos greeted the film’s premiere.
A bubbling pork stew of disparate elements to make a true cinematic original.
Given his last film, the excellent Snowpiercer, never even saw a UK release, Bong must have been understandably tempted by the prospect of instant distribution in 190 countries. But while his film certainly deserves the spatial real estate of a cinema screen, the messy debate has clouded a more important truth: Okja is a brilliant film.
Paired with co-writer Jon Ronson (an expert in wry, empathetic takes on eccentric characters) Bong has rustled up a bubbling pork stew of wildly disparate elements to make a true cinematic original. It’s a Spielbergian adventure, a magical fantasy, a dystopian sci-fi, an arthouse morality play, a rousing paean to animal rights — all housed in the simple story of a pig born in a test tube, and the ensuing battle over her fate.
There’s something rather Ghibli-esque about the film’s nearly-wordless first half-hour, introducing a sweet relationship between girl and beast in a reverently rendered natural setting. In Mija — played with astonishing resolve by newcomer Ahn — we find a fearless young heroine; stubborn, resourceful, utterly intolerant of bullshit. And in Okja, we have a hero to root for from the off. Thoughtfully crafted CGI conjures a wholly convincing hippo-like swine, whose doleful eyes and selfless loyalty convey a sharp intelligence and a big heart. It’s hard to be wowed by CGI these days, but Bong ekes remarkable humanity from Okja, who wins our love from the first moment of hoggish flatulence.
Following a breathless chase scene — ended, marvellously, with a heroic act of pooing — Okja is returned to her corporate makers in New York. Tilda Swinton lords it up as a gloriously goofy villain, ridden with daddy issues, while Paul Dano offers a calmly spoken counterpoint, leading a crew of unfailingly polite balaclava-clad animal rights activists. Jake Gyllenhaal will prove more divisive: as Mirando’s celebrity spokesperson, he’s Steve Irwin by way of Timmy Mallett, playing it broader than Okja’s considerable behind and testing our patience whenever he’s on screen.
After a sunny opening act, the final hour is gloomy and distressing, and the tone pinballs a lot, reminding us what a strange beast Okja is. Campy acting and allegorical lessons might suggest a family-friendly fantasy romp, were it not for the fruity language, frequent violence and bleak depictions of meat production. It might not work for everyone, but that Bong can spin so many plates and (for the most part) keep them spinning is a testament to his skill as a surprising filmmaker. Whatever screen you watch it on, just make sure you watch it.
A pot-bellied fable unlike anything else you’ll see this year. Not since Babe has an adorable porker inspired such peculiar joy or unexpected heartache.