Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja is the heart warming, gloriously silly and completely bonkers giant pig story involving evil corporations, animal rights activists and the best use of John Denver in a movie that you never knew you needed. No, seriously, the film took the Cannes Film Festival by surprise and it’s no wonder – it’s difficult to adequately describe this picture, other than to say it’s pretty wonderful.
Joon-Ho’s films tend to flirt with genre, but they’re also too unclassifiable to stamp them with one defining label. His marvelous Memories of Murder was a haunting serial killer thriller that had moments of outrageous humor, The Host was often funny but was also a monster movie, Mother was a mother-son relationship drama and a thriller and Snowpiercer was a futuristic science fiction thriller, but also a 99-percenter movie of the moment.
Okja can best be described as E.T., but with a massive grey pig. As the film opens, corporate monster Lucy Mirando (a wacky Tilda Swinton, relishing the villain role) announces a program to end world hunger that includes the breeding of a type of massive pig that was discovered in a far flung corner of the world. Chosen farmers from around the world will tend to the pigs – whose meat, Mirando promises, will be succulent – and ensure that they are treated in the most humane manner. In 10 years, one of them will be chosen as the winner, meaning that the farmer will be given the top prize and his pig will be the most likely to be slaughtered first.
In Korea, a young girl named Mija (An Seo-hyn) lives with her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong) and her beloved friend, Okja, a massive pig that looks more like a hippopotamus, but is gentle and good natured. Mija and Okja play together in the forest and the pig enjoys it when the young girl throws pieces of fruit into her mouth. In an early sequence detailing the depths of their friendship, the young girl falls off a cliff and the pig puts its life in grave danger in order to save her.
So, when members of the Mirando corporation – including a wildlife TV host named Johnny Wilcox (played by Jake Gylenhaal with a comedic touch of which I wasn’t formerly aware) – show up to award Mija’s grandfather for Okja, we know that this doesn’t bode well for the family. Needless to say, Okja is taken to Seoul – with plans to ship her to America, where she’ll be brought on stage for an unveiling of the new brand of meat. Mija runs away from home to save her friend, kicking off a series of misadventures that are – to say the least – colorful.
First, Mija runs after the truck carrying Okja away in a virtuoso feat of cinematography. Joon-Ho’s camera swoops and swirls as the young girl attempts to follow the truck on foot. Then, she finds herself allied with a group of animal activists led by a sympathetic Paul Dano, who is great here, and Rooney Mara. A sequence during which police officers armed with darts chase the girl, Okja and the activists – who use umbrellas to shield the beast from the darts – through a shopping center to the tune of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” is one of the film’s truly magical moments.
Okja contains more than a few laugh out loud moments as well as several others where you’ll feel your throat tighten. There’s a completely unexpected moment involving a bond between a pair of animals, their baby, Okja and Mija near the film’s end that is absolutely stunning in the way the film manages to elicit emotion through the utilization of special effects.
For a movie that tells the story of a young girl and a gigantic pig, Okja has a fair amount on its mind – everything from corporate responsibility and the humane treatment of animals to loyalty and whether a cause that martyrs others can still be considered doing the right thing. The film is moving when it needs to be, silly and satirical at other points, exciting and suspenseful. Its special effects are impressive and always in service of the story. The film is, so far, the year’s most pleasant surprise. It’s currently available to stream on Netflix and in select theaters, so I’d encourage you to seek it out.