Not since "Babe" has a pig been such a lovable character, but Okja is no ordinary pig. Nor indeed, is "Okja" an ordinary film. Bong Joon-ho’s latest feature follows the titular, genetically modified pig and her human caretaker Mija (Seo Hyun Ahn) through the world of corporate greed and animal–rights activism. Every aspect of the film, from the characters to the costumes, is over the top, but the bond between Mija and Okja grounds this often farcical satire.
On their journey, the pair encounter two opposing organizations, both trying to use Okja for their own purposes. The first of these is the Mirando Corporation (likely a dig at Monsanto), with its vain and temperamental CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, also playing Lucy’s twin sister Nancy). Okja is part of Mirando’s ten-year-long beauty pageant, purported to be a competition to see who can raise the best superpig. Mija and her guardian Hee Bong (Byun Hee Bong), win the competition, but Mija wants to keep Okja for herself. Mirando refuses, and takes her friend to New York for a promotional parade.
Assisting Mija in her attempts to protect Okja is the Animal Liberation Front, an eclectic group of non–violent activists led by Jay (Paul Dano). The ALF is both a delightful send–up of hyper-conscious political activists and an appreciative look at how far some are willing to go for their beliefs. Although they want to help Mija and Okja, they also want to use them; after saving them from Mirando in Korea, they allow Okja to be recaptured, albeit with a hidden camera to document Mirando’s abuse.
Bong never likes to create a forgettable character—nearly everyone on both sides is given some moment to express their weirdness. These are often the funniest in the film, such as Silver (Devon Bostick), an ALF member so devoted to reducing his footprint he barely eats, and is often on the verge of passing out. The stars shine as well under Bong’s direction. Swinton is just as madcap as in her role in “Snowpiercer,” lying through her teeth to the public while trying to maintain an impeccable image for herself and her company. Dano fills the role of charming leader with the hint of an edge well, keeping his memorable merry men in line as they question their absolutist credo. Ahn delights as she defies all who come between her and Okja.
“Okja” is a fast-paced film, always shifting in tone. Much of the film is too over the top to be taken seriously, especially scenes with the ALF, but Bong at times swerves in a much darker direction. He includes a scene in which Okja is forced to breed with another superpig, as well as a horrifying tour through a slaughterhouse. These moments exist only to serve Bong’s message—against corporate greed, wild genetic experimentation, and animal cruelty of all kinds.
Bong’s ideas aren’t complicated, with the activists coming out as absolutely good (despite some mistakes) and Mirando being portrayed as totally unethical. “Okja” doesn’t end perfectly happily, but he reminds the audience that in this world where so much is corrupt, one needs to find comfort in the small victories. Bong is an ideological filmmaker, but the ride to his inevitable conclusion is such a varied, enjoyable experience that this oversimplification is easy to forgive.
—Staff writer Ethan B. Reichsman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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