“This is a film about a pig,” said Bong Joon-ho at the Closing Night of the Sydney Film Festival. The reductive statement is typical of the director, only telling us part of the story. Of course, the method of release for OKJA has been the bigger story over the last few months, with producers Netflix receiving ‘boos’ at Cannes and sparking a debate as to the streaming giant’s place in the cinema world.
The titular ‘super pig’ is a creation of the Mirando Corporation, with eccentric CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) promoting the pigs as a new sustainable food source. Ten years later, Okja has been raised to enormous size by Mija (An Seo-hyun) in the mountains of Korea. When Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) claims back Okja for the corporation, Mija heads to Seoul to retrieve her friend. Joined by the Animal Liberation Front (including Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Devok Bostik, and Australia’s Daniel Henshall), her fight to win back Okja exposes the real activities of Mirando.
OKJA might seem like a departure from Bong’s earlier work, especially if you view him through the lens of Memories of Murder or Mother. Yet this is the sibling of inventive monster movie The Host, and a thematic stablemate to survivalist social commentary in Snowpiercer. The closest comparison would be the Steven Spielberg/Amblin films of the 1970s and 1980s, where a child is thrust out of their protected environment into a world of unfathomably mercenary adults.
This is reflected in the delightfully over-the-top performances of a massive cast of antagonists, representing the antithesis of Mija’s wholesomeness. The irrepressible Swinton re-teams with Bong as another egocentric nutjob, a shameless self-promoter, whose braced teeth beam through her marketing spin. Gyllenhaal’s end-of-the-tether celebrity vet is equally unhinged, perhaps only matched by Dano’s violent eruptions, thinly veiled by an animal-friendly eco credo.
Yet the focus of the film is a girl and her pig. An is already known to Korean audiences from Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid and serials such as The Village: Achiara’s Secret, the young actor gives a breakout performance for English-language audiences. Okja herself is an entirely CG creation, with animated characteristics that make her part pig, hippo, and puppy. Moments between the duo are heartwarmingly priceless, and it is unsurprising that Bong started this project back in 2010 with the face of the animal in mind.
As the most expensive Korean language film ever made, every drop is on screen. There’s an chase sequence through a city tunnel has blockbuster appeal with a high-concept MacGuffin. Later, a trip to the slaughterhouse uses a variety of effects to push the film into some darker commentary on the mass food manufacture and GMO. While not necessarily Bong’s intention, there may be a few more vegetarians by the time the credits roll.
As the film leaves audiences with this somber undercurrent, and capitalism is shown to be the only currency that talks, OKJA nevertheless remains a memorable and high-spirited outing. As for Netflix’s place on the cinema landscape, we have to wonder if there is any other studio that would give US $50 million to a Korean director to make a primarily subtitled film about a giant pig. If this kind of daring stand is the future of cinema, we say bring it on.
OKJA screened at the Sydney Film Festival 2017. It releases in the US and Australia in August.