Okja begins with a splendiferous introduction to its title character. Who is Okja? The ecstatic businesswoman Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) is thrilled to tell us, via multimedia presentation, by revealing to the press and her investors a new kind of “super-pig” her global corporation has discovered. A giant, lumbering beast resembling a hippo (though with a more baleful face), this creature is the future of cuisine, Lucy explains, and Okja is a prized calf sent to a farm in South Korea as part of a worldwide competition to find the best environment for her species. There she’ll roam around the mountains for 10 years, munch on the grass, and becoming a loving companion to young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the farmer’s granddaughter.
The first act of Bong Joon-ho’s wonderful film Okja, available Wednesday on Netflix (and screening in theaters in limited release), is delightfully bucolic. It follows Mija and her gargantuan pal as they shamble around, watched over by her well-meaning grandpa (Byun Hee-bong). Their untroubled existence feels a universe away from Lucy’s Mirando Corporation, but the initial manicured, and slightly manic, press conference lingers in the mind. Mija’s rural paradise seems too good to be true, a fantasy of an animal’s upbringing exploited to make viewers feel less guilty about eating hot dogs. It’s clear reality is going to encroach, and when it does, Bong knows how to make it hurt.
The Korean auteur is drawing more and more comparisons to Steven Spielberg, and it’s not hard to see why—Okja is like a more brutal E.T., if E.T. had been at risk of being turned into mass-produced jerky. Like that film, Bong’s is about the loss of innocence, but more importantly, it’s about the value of innocence. Mija is neither a simpleton nor a fool for developing a genuine relationship with Okja, and she’s right to try and rescue her when the Mirando Corporation eventually comes to take her away. You’ll likely be gripping your armrest, practically cheering her on, as Mija gives pursuit to Okja’s captors—though her enemy is a vast capitalist entity, her cause doesn’t seem hopeless.
The power of Bong’s film is that it never lets go of Mija’s purity of spirit, holding it up as a lesson many of us (particularly the meat-eaters) could stand to re-learn. Okja is, of course, a product—viewers know that about her before we even see her face. She’s a stand-in for all kinds of factory farming, and of routine inhumanities that result from systems of mass production or global trade. But Mija’s love for her isn’t naïve, or easily dismissed. Even the Mirando Corporation understands how valuable this affection can be—it’s why Lucy is trying to introduce Okja as a real animal people can understand, so customers won’t be afraid to fry her genetically enhanced flesh for breakfast.
It’s not as preachy as it sounds; at least, not for most of the film’s two-hour running time. Okja is selected as the best super-pig in the world and the figurehead for Mirando’s upcoming product launch, and she’s whisked away after a filming session with Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a zoologist-cum-TV personality who’s spearheading Lucy’s PR push. Mija gives chase, and Bong dials up the skill for inventive action sequences he showed off in films like The Host and Snowpiercer to another dazzling level.
If you can see Okja in theaters, do try to—it’s an impressively epic production worth seeing on a big screen, and it contains one of the most joyous set-pieces I’ve seen in recent memory, as Mija breaks her buddy out of a truck and rides her through the streets of Seoul. The wild chase is so suspenseful and emotionally resonant, partly because of how well-developed the bond between Mija and her CGI pal is already; it’s the kind of exhilarating magic that’s certainly reminiscent of Mr. Spielberg.
But if you’ve seen Bong’s previous work, you know he has a taste for the macabre and for allowing his ensemble let loose. Paul Dano pops up as a militant vegan animal-rights activist intent on freeing Okja, with Steven Yeun as his nervy sidekick. Swinton delights in making the peppy Lucy into a takedown of every cheery marketing campaign, or overly friendly executive. Gyllenhaal is attempting an oddball high-wire villain performance that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of the 1960s Batman; it will undoubtedly not work for everyone, but I confess to being charmed by his mania.
Best of all, Bong never loses his focus on Mija and Okja. As Okja progresses, the point the director is trying to make becomes more obvious, especially as Mija wanders into the bowels of the factory-farming system and experiences its truly unnatural horrors. Much as with Snowpiercer, it sometimes feels like Bong is trying to hit a nail on the head with a sledgehammer—he’s successful at getting his message across, but it gets tougher and tougher to absorb. Still, there’s something to be said for that intensity. Okja doesn’t want to end on the simple grace note of a happy ending, but it’s also not trying to leave the viewer miserable. It’s a sublime tale of the value of humanity, and the horrors we often have to suffer through to hold on to that.