At its most basic level, “Okja” is a “child-and-their-lovable-pet” film. In the mountains of South Korea, Orphan Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) lives an isolated, carefree life with her guardian Hee Bong (Hee-Bong Byun) and her adorable pet Okja-- a giant “Super Pig” that resembles a pig crossed with a Hippopotamus. Mija and Okja run around together, eat persimmons, go swimming in waterholes and take naps together. Cute.
When a movie involves animals, it doesn’t take much for the audience to be engaged. Seriously, just throw a dog or cat on the screen for a second and I’ll feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Okja is a gentle, benevolent creature, so of course we love her immediately. However, “Okja” has greater ambitions beyond being a simple tale of a girl and her creature, which is good but it also prevents this core relationship from being as poignant as it should be.
Directed and co scripted by Bong Joon Ho, (“Snowpiercer, “ “The Host”) “Okja” is a scathing commentary on capitalism’s icky underbelly. It’s about exploitation and selling out and how crucial a role marketing/branding play in distorting and repackaging the ugly truth behind certain capitalistic enterprises. Okja was created in a lab (along with thousands of other Super Pigs) by multinational corporation Mirando as a new kind of livestock to be used for meat. As a marketing ploy, twenty-six Super Pigs were sent to twenty-six different farmers from around the globe (one of those farmers being Hee Bong) to be raised, to create the illusion that these creatures were found in nature and farmed in a free-range environment.
“Okja” also tackles the controversial abusive practices used in factory farming and our collective complicity in it. For audiences, this may be the film’s hardest issue to confront. Most of us don't want animals to be abused, even if they’re being used for food but due to socioeconomic factors we often have to keep supporting these corporations that employ abusive slaughter practices. The film does a good job of being critical while also acknowledging the difficulty in stopping it altogether. As long as there’s a demand for cheap meat, these hasty, abusive practices will continue.
Considering all these weighty issues, the film could have been excruciatingly didactic in the wrong directors hands but Joon Ho handles the material with sincerity and evenhandedness, organizing the material in a fast paced, energetic adventure structure. When the company comes to collect Okja, plucky Mija venturing into to Seoul and eventually traveling to New York to get her beloved pet back.
Joon Ho takes the material seriously, letting the social commentary sting and make you uncomfortable at times, while also allowing for nuttiness and playful mocking. The script is injected with plenty of offbeat humor (the gags involving a group of animal rights activists are among the best) and Joon Ho populates the film with giddily eccentric supporting characters. Tilda Swinton is a delight as peppy but wildly insecure Lucy Mirando, the current CEO of Mirando and the creator of the Super Pig project. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal gives a bizarre, out of left field performance as Johnny Wilcox, a former animal reality TV show host who’s now shilling for Mirando. Joon Ho avoids turning these characters into evil, one-dimensional, money obsessed caricatures. Both are seemingly good people with good intentions that are ultimately compromised by desperation and the pressure to achieve success and make money. We see this very prominently in Wilcox, an animal lover who, in tough times, sells his integrity in order to survive.
Unfortunately, the core relationship between Mija and Okja sort of gets lost in all this other stuff. Due to the film’s kidnap-and-rescue structure, we get few intimate moments between the two (outside of the beginning section in rural South Korea). They spend a majority of the film separated. Ultimately, the movie becomes more about the people and the activity surrounding Mija and Okja rather then Okja and Mija; the corporation that wants Okja (and later Mija, in another marketing ploy) or the animal rights group that wants to expose Mirando’s sinister practices to the world.
This is all well and good but as a result, the bond between Mija and Okja feels underdeveloped and neglected. In fact, it becomes the least memorable part of the film and both Mija and Okja remain fairly one-dimensional. Okja is cute and lovable in a surface level way-- she doesn’t have much personality, partly because we don’t see much of her after she gets captured. It would have been better for the film to spend more time with just Okja and Mija instead of quickly separating them. There’s plenty in “Okja” to make it worth a watch but this is still a disappointing hiccup.