A corporation run by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) finds a new breed of ‘super pig’ and sends 26 piglets to be raised in different farms across the world. 10 years later, with the pigs fully grown, the company reclaim their property. Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), a little girl from South Korea, has become attached to her pig Okja and sets about saving her from the chop.
South Korean director Joon-ho Bong (whose last film was the well-received Snowpiercer) is far from a conventional filmmaker, and Okja is the perfect example of that. In fact the title character herself is the perfect example. Some kind of CGI pig/dog/hippo hybrid the size of a small lorry, the super pig is brilliantly designed and quite extraordinarily brought to life by the special effects team. From the subtle movements of hair on its back to a dramatic police chase through a shop in Seoul, Okja feels real. In fact, if it wasn’t such a strange creation, it would be hard to tell it was CGI.
Perhaps at times Okja doesn’t quite seem to know what kind of film it wants to be. Tonally it shifts from flatulence comedy to themes of anti-capitalism and animal rights. Each aspect is done very well but it doesn’t quite blend together. It’s got heart, soul and a great sense of humour but feels a little disjointed at times.
The first third is excellent, with Bong showing off his CGI creation in a series of stunning shots in the Korean mountains. The interaction between Mija and her pet pig are a joy to watch. As the film progresses to Seoul and New York it becomes darker and slightly dreary. This effectively reflects the story and achieves exactly what Bong wanted, but you are left longing for the vibrant countryside.
“The end result
is completely mad.”
As the focus switches from the extraordinary nature of Okja to the intentions of the human characters, it’s lucky they have such a great cast. Swinton is fantastic, as is Paul Dano as the leader of an animal rights movement. Young Seo-Hyun Ahn does a great job holding the film together but the star is Jake Gyllenhaal as wacky TV zoologist Johnny Wilcox. You can tell Gyllenhaal threw himself into the role and just had fun with it. The end result is completely mad, but layered too and fascinating to watch.
As the film approaches its climax it continues to get darker and there are some distressing moments in there, particularly in a slaughterhouse which evokes the atmosphere of a concentration camp. Despite the adorable title character, this isn’t a children’s film. It’s more of a think-piece tale crafted by the independent sensibility of its filmmaker.
Despite the tonal issues, Okja is a totally charming film that has a powerful message at its heart. With a strong visual sense, great performances and an emotional hook, Netflix’s latest feature film may just turn you vegan.