Film review | Okja: That’ll do pig, that’ll do

Tugging at the heartstrings as hard as it plunges a knife straight into the jugular of the industrial food complex, Okja is an untamed beast of a film that is sure to take you on an emotional rollercoaster • 5/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
18 July 2017, 7:30am
A girl and her pig:  Ahn Seo-hyun leads the way in this inspired emotional rollercoaster from Netflix
A girl and her pig: Ahn Seo-hyun leads the way in this inspired emotional rollercoaster from Netflix
The easiest way to get an emotional rise out of an audience is to either put a child or a cute animal in peril, and director Bong Joon-ho’s (Snowpiercer) latest ramshackle epic, Okja, does both of those things with merciless aplomb from start to finish. 

Released exclusively on Netflix – a fact that led to much jeering, and all-out booing, when this unlikely gem of a movie was screened at this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival – the film, co-written by Bong Joon-ho and Jon Ronson, imagines a world in which the Mirando Corporation – run by the creepily upbeat and aching-to-be-hip Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has engineered 26 ‘super pigs’ and sent them out to live in remote farms around the world for the first ten years of their life. Why? Well, they want to ferret out the biggest of the lot, so as to show it off in a New York beauty pageant of sorts before promptly slaughtering it (along with its 25 other counterparts) to produce what promises to be the most delicious sausages anyone has ever tasted.  

This is bad news for the titular Okja, who has been reared in the Korean wilderness by a plucky young girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her farmer grandfather. But now, the Corporation has come to collect, sending the popular – though somewhat unhinged – TV veterinarian Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhall) to pick up the beast and document its journey to international superstardom.

Square to be hip: Tilda Swinton
Square to be hip: Tilda Swinton
Naive to the ways of the world she may be, but Kijo’s burning love for Okja pushes her to go on a foolhardy quest in pursuit of her only friend. Along the way, she encounters the Animal Liberation Front, a self-explanatory rag-tag group led by Jay (Paul Dano), whose heart may be in the right place, but whose methods and organisational skills leave a lot to be desired.

Okja is directed by a South Korean auteur, and at the risk of overgeneralising the produce of an entire nation, the look and feel of this has the same crazed but visually dazzling feel to some of the country’s most memorable films. Mixing in an anti-capitalist parable with a coming-of-age story populated by grotesques and freaks of every persuasion, this is a film that will hit the spot – whether you’re after show-stopping action sequences or magnetically tear-jerking moments. And that’s to say nothing about the CGI beast at the centre of it all – a huge and huggable, but nonetheless vigorous beast whom you’ll be rooting for from the very start.

Above all, however, Okja is a supremely well-executed story about growing up. By the end of it, you truly get a sense that, having witnessed the true heart of darkness that lies within humanity, Kijo has indeed emerged “wiser and sadder” from the ordeal (as Samuel Taylor Coleridge might put it). And though it suggests similar emotional arcs as Steven Spielberg’s most family-friendly films – with ET being the main point of reference here – and even a Disney-like story in some ways, Bong Joon-ho is not one for neat solutions. One sequence towards the end is so dark it may just spoil the overall mood for those looking for a more uplifting experience. But this is also why Okja is a cut above most of its competition. 

Tugging at the heartstrings as hard as it plunges a knife straight into the jugular of the industrial food complex, Okja is an untamed beast of a film that is sure to take you on an emotional rollercoaster. Though formally messy in parts and packed with wildly varying tonalities and performances, it shines like a rough diamond in a franchise-ridden cinematic wasteland... and it may just convert you to vegetarianism. 

Okja is currently streaming on Netflix

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...