Dir: Bong Joon-ho | Panorama | Gateway| Special Presentation| South Korea/USA | 2017 | 121 mins
I was lucky enough to see Okja, directed by visionary director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer) on the big screen at VIFF, since its main form of distribution has been courtesy of Netflix. The film combines multiple genres – a touching boy-and-his-dog story (in this case, a girl and her “super pig”), a thrilling action film with multiple chase scenes, an exposé of the cruelties of the industrial meat industry, a dystopian tale of capitalism run amok. But despite the multiple competing storylines, what ultimately grounds the film is the relationship between Mija, a young South Korean girl, and Okja, her devoted, fantastical, hippo-sized, super pig. If you’ve gazed into the eyes of your dog and felt that they were the only ones who really understood you, you’ll understand the lengths that Mija goes to save her best friend when Okja is taken from her.
Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has raised Okja for almost her whole life, and they spend many happy days together in the idyllic, lush mountain countryside of South Korea. But Okja belongs to the Mirando Corporation. Ten years prior, Mirando Corporation’s CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), with the help of spokesperson zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhall), announced the launch of a new super pig product line which would create a cheap, environmentally friendly food source. In the present day, the Mirando Corporation reclaims Okja and transports her to New York as the PR centrepiece of their latest food line. Mija, with determination and downright obstinacy, fights to save her and take her back home. She finds help in her quest from a peculiarly polite, non-violent animal rights activist group called the Animal Liberation Front (in real life, a clandestine animal rights movement characterized by critics as terrorists), headed by Jay (Paul Dano) and includes K, a fellow activist and de facto Korean translator played by Steven Yuen of The Walking Dead fame.
Mija should be listed among the great heroines that young girls can look up to. Despite a lack of power, money or the ability to communicate in English when she lands in New York City, Mija is single-minded in her quest to save her beloved Okja from the massive and powerful multinational corporation. Ahn Seo-hyun gives a convincing and empathetic performance, convincing us of her close relationship with Okja (despite the fact that, in real life, the actress had to react and respond to people waving around pieces of foam as stand-ins for the CGI technology). Okja herself is a marvel, a giant, gentle, snout-faced dog whose large emotive eyes and lumbering physicality make it easy to forget that she is a CGI creation. With action set pieces like an extended chase scene with Okja creating havoc in a busy underground Seoul shopping mall, as well as smaller scenes such as a closeup of a hand stroking Okja’s leathery skin, it’s not a surprise that Oscar-winning animation director (Life of Pi, The Avengers), Erik-Jan de Boer, was in charge of the visual effects.
The simple, natural demeanor of Mija is in stark contrast with the larger-than-life villains of the story – the platinum-bobbed Lucy Mirando and her corporate shills, and Dr. Johnny, a pathetic, nasally voiced combination of Steve Irwin and Richard Simmons. These characters receive some backstory to explain their share of vulnerabilities and motivations (she was never appreciated by her family; he’s a zoologist who is now basically torturing animals for money), but the backstory seems to serve no purpose to the film other than an attempt to add some shade to the character.
But perhaps subtle and complex characters are not needed for Okja, a David versus Goliath tale of a girl and her devoted super pig which also has talking points about GMO, corporate exploitation and the cruelties of the meat industry. The slaughterhouse scenes alone will make you think twice the next time you eat meat (at the end of the screening I went to, someone shouted out, “Go vegan, everyone!”). Make sure you stay for the Ocean’s 11 style post-credits scene (or skip to that scene if you’re watching it on Netflix).
Watch the trailer.