Social responsibility has become imperative to corporate identity and branding. It’s a concept that’s certainly not lacking within the alternate world of Bong Joon-ho’s latest film, Okja, which sees an East-meets-West convergence similar to that of his previous, critically acclaimed South Korean-Czech sci-fi thriller, Snowpiercer.
“The world is running out of food and we’re not talking about it,” sprightly, over-the-top, performative CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), of multinational, agrochemical conglomerate Mirando Corporation, declares in the film’s opening scene, immediately laying down the premise before revealing the company’s latest accomplishment: “We’ve successfully reproduced 26 miracle piglets by non-forced, natural mating.”
Preaching ethics proves a shrewd and appropriate marketing move, as Mirando succeeds in glamorising the endeavour with confetti and fanfare, through making a publicised competition out of having the piglets be nurtured via traditional means by local farmers from around the world, all without any pretense concealing its primary purpose: for the fully grown super-pigs to function as a forward-looking food source. In other words, it’s a darkly comedic and insidiously twisted, yet apparently effective, strategy to get consumers excited for, and even emotionally invested in, the presently alive but yet-to-be meat on their plates. “They will leave a minimal footprint on the environment, consume less feed and produce less excretions. And most importantly,” Lucy quips, “they need to taste f**king good.”
Fast-forward 10 years to South Korea, where a young Mija (An Seo Hyun) blows a dandelion with child-like fascination. An enormous, lumbering, grey super-pig emerges from the thicket behind her. This is Okja, who is revealed to have notable intelligence and a gentleness of heart, together with a fierce loyalty to Mija that is reciprocated accordingly. Unmistakable CGI virtuosity and meticulous attention to detail act in complete favour of both the creature and the film, as Okja’s completely believable presence feels marvelous, charming and true.
Bong does a brilliant job here at indulging every tender, blissful sense, managing to bring Ghibli to life, visually, in the first few minutes of the film, which is set in the idyllic, forested mountainside that is Mija and Okja’s home. The feel-good mood is almost tauntingly underpinned with dread for the havoc we know is to come, and Bong’s expertise in setting a halcyon tone makes it difficult for us to not hope in vain that the peace lasts forever.
All is good and well – that is, until a camera crew, led by washed-out celebrity spokesman Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), arrives to follow up with and bring Okja to New York for Mirando’s super-pig competition. Their arrival promptly tears a rip right through the fabric of tranquility, marking a departure from serenity and innocence, along with the film’s departure from sensibility; the movie, akin to Okja’s situation, quickly deteriorates. From being cheekily satirical to absurdly nonsensical, a mish-mash of enjoyable action sequences, debatable dialogue and seemingly pointless subplots culminate in a confused mess of a climax (or several – it’s hard to tell), which then eases into a matter-of-fact resolution that provides a tail-end just as solid as the film’s beginning, and that fortunately somewhat compensates for the disappointing in-between.
The main plotline follows Mija’s attempts to bring Okja back home. It’s your run-of-the-mill rescue story, and while we can appreciate deliberate banality so long as it’s conveyed well, Okja’s overambitious vision detracts from the key element that makes a cliché compelling: its digestibility. The non-violent, eco-terrorist Animal Liberation Front (ALF) activist group, headed by Jay (Paul Dano), featuring K (Steven Yeun) as translator to bridge the communication gap between the film’s predominant languages of Korean and English, is entertaining and winsome when it’s first introduced, and the team quickly becomes integral to the rescue mission. With their commitment to a pro-animal rights vision and their jollity of spirit and the manner of their methods – their weapon inventory comprises marbles and petals primarily, and they fend off bullets with rainbow-splattered umbrellas – they add a welcomed dose of humour and adrenaline to Okja. But then enter Lucy Mirando again, Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito) and Jennifer (Shirley Henderson) in tow, shedding light on the underlying dynamics within the company; suddenly, we find ourselves lost in a political corporate drama subplot that could be potentially juicy, but remains half-baked and ultimately feels unnecessary. The film touches base with a lot of genres and tones, but loses itself in its strive to allude to a plethora of themes and subject matter.
That is, by and large, the flaw in Okja: its excessiveness and wild goose chases that feel pointlessly chaotic and leave loose ends. When Dr. Johnny Wilcox re-emerges, his eccentricity bordering on drunken insanity, he plunges into a maddened monologue about how miserable and humiliated he is. Are we meant to feel sympathy for him, or hate him even more? It’s not easy to tell, or even care to discern, when, as a character, he feels inconsequential, redundant, and present either for the sake of satisfying a stereotype, or just for the sake of being there. The same can be said about the ALF. They remain endearing throughout the film, but the emphasis on the introduction of the ensemble is a build-up that promises greater character development and involvement in the story, but is left unfulfilled. It makes you wonder if the likes of Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall and Devon Bostick are merely in the cast to serve as familiar faces.
An Seo Hyun’s performance is commendable, and Mija is suitably out-of-place in New York, but this becomes quickly overshadowed by the rest of the characters, especially with Gyllenhaal attracting the wrong sorts of attention with his gratingly exaggerated portrayal of Wilcox – a caricature of a caricature, and yes, there is a difference. Meanwhile, the Lucy-versus-her-twin-sister-Nancy (also played by Swinton, of course) subplot leaves you wondering what creating anticipation for a conflict over who heads the company was meant to amount to. Lucy is ousted as abruptly as Nancy swoops in, and the takeover leads to Nancy being relevant and in the spotlight, for a grand total of just a few minutes.
We get it; Okja is meant to be intentionally absurd, melodramatic and ironic. Yet it is precisely the cacophony of ideas that renders the film senseless noise, when really, as a satire, it should have been an established voice. The bulk of it reaches too far and tries to cover too much, leaving you dizzy and saturated. While this might well have been Bong’s very intent (as, notably, the bedlam transpires mainly in New York, and partially in central Seoul, perhaps in allusion to the contrast between urban and rural life, and the awkwardness and frenzy of Okja’s displacement), we can’t help but find the execution haphazard and ineffective, though salvaged by a darkly disturbing, deeply disquieting, and painfully real, slaughterhouse end scene. Mija manages to get Okja back, trading her for a gold dowry, which Nancy Mirando easily accepts, as a powerful statement on how business is just business, and not always for needless evil. But their walk out of the factory, surrounded by yards and yards of super-pigs that, unlike Okja, haven’t been fortunate enough to escape their fate, doesn’t feel so much like a victory stride as it does a solemn march reflecting the gruesome truth of the world.
Watching Okja felt a bit like scrambling earnestly to fit jigsaw pieces into a post-modern puzzle that turned out just as fragmented – yet we can appreciate that, perhaps, in a swooping matter-of-factly commentary, this was precisely the point: to mount an adventure narrative, built on the foundation of a touching friendship, as a medium to draw attention to the larger, ever-present reality of capitalist atrocities that won’t disappear with just one successful rescue mission. In a society reliant on mass production, saving just one super-pig does not shut down the entire system.
Okja launches globally and exclusively on Netflix on June 28.