THE SHORT REVIEW: Bong Joon-Ho’s fable about a girl and her super-pig is an incredible lesson in the costs of greed, but also in the delight of small victories.
There’s not a lot that doesn’t polorise people’s opinions these days. Politics, religion, Marmite; topics that, when the woven into a film, make some viewers instantly switch off. So, when South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho decided to make a film like Okja, he’s taking a risk. Centering the plot on a girl’s rescue mission of her pet super-pig from the clutches of the meat-industrial complex is no doubt a heavy issue to discuss, but Okja achieves something many other films can’t. To be able to masterfully draw out our emotions and reason simultaneously in a film that makes us think about the world we choose not to pay attention to is important, and we should look at Okja with the respect it deserves.
As the daughter of a farmer, Mija (Seo-Hyeon Ahn) spends the majority of her life high in the mountains with her grandfather. But the two aren’t alone. Her best friend is a super-sized pig named Okja. She is a genetically-modified, hippo-sized pig with floppy ears and no snout. Given as a baby by the Mirando company to rear, Okja wins the company’s contest and is sent back to New York to take part in a lavish publicity stunt by the company’s CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton). Of course, it’s not that simple, and Mija immediately chooses to track down her best friend and bring her home.
Firstly, this film is beautiful. The luscious green mountains and beautiful skies that surround the young protagonist, Mija, and her Okja in their mountainous home give way to the metropolises of Seoul and New York later in the film. Wonderfully shot chase scenes fill the story with breaks of great slapstick humour and intensity. Added to this, a cast including Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal (the Ace-Venture-esque trainwreck Johnny Wilcox) are wonderful, sinister additions. However, the film does itself credit in not overshadowing the protagonists with the A-listers. Finally, the CGI-super-pig is astonishing. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore, now that most major blockbusters are largely CGI and motion capture, but Okja’s design and execution feels real and, above all, adorable.
Where the film comes crashing into reality is where it truly leaves its mark. Mija’s discovery that Okja is to be sent to the slaughterhouse by Mirando drops her in a world marred by profits and greed. Assisted by members of the ALF, Animal Liberation Front, Mija’s task of bringing her pet home spirals into a responsibility to expose the company for its cruelty. However, as viewers learn by the end of the film, the only thing that really saves Mija is her wit and money. With Okja trapped in a factory farm and on the proverbial chopping-block, our young hero must buy the freedom from Lucy Mirando’s ruthless, business-focused twin sister. In the end, Okja and Mija manage to evade a cruel fate, but the emotional scars collected on their journey appear quite visible.
With thousands of other super-pigs like Okja destined for slaughter, it might appear as though there is nothing but a fleeting happy ending to the film, if any at all.
That being said, what I think needs taking away from this film is in the appreciation of small victories. Mija and the ALF may have not brought down a billion-dollar industry, but in all honesty that was unlikely by anyone’s standards. What shines is the tenacity of Mija; her own ruthlessness to get her friend back reminds viewers that progress is about taking the little steps (which is exemplified when they rescue a baby super-pig on their way out). As the credits come to an end, the two key members of the ALF (played by Steven Yeun and Paul Dano) leave prison with their next mission primed to go.
There’s so much more layered into the film, which is what makes Joon-Ho such an incredible filmmaker. For example, the ability to make an American-Korean film that bridges the culture gap is no small feat, Steven Yeun has said. Okja is one such film that will definitely reward you with multiple viewings.
Okja is now streaming on Netflix.