Okja: Giving You the Business, by David Bax
Director Bong Joon-Ho has made a reputation for himself as someone who can reimagine and blend together familiar cinematic elements in clever, heartfelt and surprisingly coherent ways. His latest, Okja, is a bit creakier than past efforts but, still, it’s no exception. Even when it feels less than fresh (after Free Fire, it’s not even the first movie this year to set an action scene to “Annie’s Song” by John Denver), it’s always fun. Except, that is, when it’s breaking your heart.
Okja is the name of a genetically engineered animal from a new species called superpig (even though they look more like a hippopotamuses with the faces of manatees) grown in a lab by a Monsanto-like corporation called Mirando, led by CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton). As an experiment (and to familiarize people with the new breed), they sent 26 of these superpigs to farmers around the world for ten years to see who can raise the very best one. Okja is one of those, sent to live with an old farmer (Byun Hee-Bong from The Host) and his granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) in the mountains of South Korea. Mija and Okja are the best of friends, spending their days foraging and napping in the forest around their modest home. When the ten years are up, though, the company comes to take Okja back. Mija, furious and devastated, teams up with a group of militant animal rights activists (played by Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins and others) to face off against the heartless Mirando folks (Swinton, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal and Shirley Henderson among them).
At its core, then, Okja is a variation on the boy-and-his-dog genre; Old Yeller but with a girl and a massive CGI superpig. While most of the story beats follow that family-friendly formula, there are far more disturbing moments—not to mention utterances of the word “fuck” and its variants—than you’ll find in most kids’ fare. Bong walks that light/dark tightrope well. There’s also some knockout action (the truck and foot chase through the streets of Seoul is a marvel) and more than a little bit of aimless corporate satire—unfortunately one of the movie’s weakest points due to a lack of focus, at least until the very end.
Luckily, Bong’s cast is uniformly terrific, papering over the dodgy patches more often than not. Ahn’s resolve provides the fulcrum, allowing for more outlandish performances like Dano’s as a sensitive badass, Gyllenhall’s off-the-wall but oddly sympathetic turn as a fame-hungry animal lover corrupted by Mirando and especially Swinton, who starts the movie off with a monologue delivered to shareholders and press while sporting braces on her teeth, in case you ever wondered what it would be like if Parker Posey’s character from Best in Show were the head of a Fortune 500 company.
Beneath all of the wackiness, Bong is clearly aiming for a critique of the ethics of raising animals for food. He overreaches, though, in the characterization of Okja, whose problem-solving skills and seeming ability to communicate with Mija make her a little too smart. Bong is gilding the lily here, making it difficult to equate Okja to the far more common and less intelligent creatures we slaughter, package and consume every day.
When the smoke clears, though, and the final standoff arrives in the form of two people talking, rather than some elaborate shootout or set-piece, Okja’s true target becomes apparent. Bong ultimately illustrates the basic, inherent inhumanity of business, a way of life that obliterates individuals, only speaking or understanding the numerical language of commerce. It’s dispiriting and maybe even a little cynical but, in its elegiac final moments, Okja reminds us that small victories for good are still possible so long as we remember that there are stronger bonds between living things than money.