Okja (2017)

As the saying goes, you don’t separate a girl and her massive super-pig. At least, you don’t in Okja, a movie by Bong Joon-ho about exactly that. That’s exactly what kick-starts its story, which sees a giant genetically engineered pig named Okja, which has been read on a South Korean farm for the last decade, retaken by the company that created it. A young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has bonded with it in that time, and she decides to leave home to recover it.

That corporation is run by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who figures that genetically engineered super-pigs are the way to feed the world – and line her pockets. The corporation is evil, almost cartoonishly so, despite its public persona. We figure this out pretty early on; its transparent “contest” for a farmer to try to raise the best super-pig to breed public goodwill isn’t going to fool us. So, of course we’re rooting for Mija. Along the way, she also finds herself caught up in a fight between the corporation and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which is led by Jay (Paul Dano) and wants to discover and bring to light all of the corporation’s evil practices.

It probably isn’t difficult to almost immediately see where the movie’s heart is. It’s got a message, applicable not just to super-pigs but the food industry, its practices, and our consumption of its products. Yeah, it gets a little heavy-handed at times, but it’s got a point and it gets it across well. Framing it through the eyes of a naive girl who just wants her pig back makes it even more compelling.

That’s true, too, of the way that Okja manages to make us care about pretty much everything that happens to this large pig. We care about it and we care about its relationship to this girl. It’s been rendered with amazing CGI and given a human-like ability to emote and, well, it’s pretty adorable – even if it could crush you without a second thought. Using animals to gain sympathy from the audience isn’t a new trick, but it continues to be very effective here.

Okja is a bizarre movie, one that’s part satire, part adventure film, but all oddness.

In the hands of a less skilled filmmaker Okja might not work at all. After all, it’s a weird film, and you need a director who can handle that. Bong Joon-ho is more than talented enough and has just enough oddity to his work to make Okja a success. He keeps things moving, doesn’t linger on the stranger moments, and keeps it all grounded in reality even when, well, it is as unreal as can be. I mean, it’s a giant super-pig. And a young girl traveling across the land, far and wide, to bring it back home. That’s just crazy enough to work.

Most of the acting in Okja is great. Seo-Hyun Ahn will be new to American audiences and here is tasked with carrying a significant portion of the production. She’s the heart and soul of the movie, and she’s wonderful. Tilda Swinton is a little silly but makes her evil CEO character works, and actors like Paul Dano, Lily Collins, and Steven Yeun are fun as members of the ALF.

We do, however, need to talk about whatever it is Jake Gyllenhaal is doing in this movie. He’s playing a zoologist here, one who is over-the-top, weird, wacky, manic, and unhinged. I’m not entirely sure if it works, and it feels like the type of performance that belongs in a different movie, but it’s certainly memorable.

Okja is a bizarre movie, one that’s part satire, part adventure film, but all oddness. It’s a film about a giant genetically modified super-pig and the quest of a young girl to bring it home. But it’s for adults and it’s a criticism of the food industry. Somehow, it almost all works, and is entertaining, emotionally resonant, and thoughtful. It’s a great movie.

Conclusion: Okja is a fantastic movie that you can watch right now on Netflix.

Recommendation: Go watch Okja.

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