Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is, to put it mildly, bizarre.
The director of such classics like The Host, Mother, and Snowpiercer has returned with what is sure to be his most divisive effort, thanks to generous funding from Netflix, as the streaming giant is desperate for a critical and audience success for its original films. Despite being an unfortunate magnet for controversy at Cannes this year for the French cineastes to take out their anger at streaming services, pissed at companies like Netflix for both providing easy access to arthouse films in areas that wouldn’t otherwise get them and undermining the “theatrical experience” (which, as my friend Jake Mulligan has pointed out, the chain theaters do well enough themselves), Okja most likely wouldn’t have made those theater owners any money. It’s a significantly hard sell to many audiences, as it’s sort of adults-only version of Charlotte’s Web, filled to the brim with action and humor but full of the horrors of modern capitalism and factory farming, and it’s unlikely it would have found an audience in it’s initial run. So, to put it plainly, this film was a risk that Netflix was willing to take, and they’ve been rewarded by Bong’s efforts: Okja is fantastic. And, in a year crowded with John Denver-soundtracked films, it may be the best among them.
Warning: Mild spoilers follow.
Okja is the name of a one-ton, seven-foot-tall, 18-foot-long superpig, who lives an idyllic life on a farm out in the mountains of South Korea with her best friend, a young girl named Mija (a wonderful Ahn Seo-hyun), and the young girl’s grandfather (longtime Bong collaborator Byun Hee-bong). Her origins are a bit unclear at first; but the shadowy Mirando corporation, suffering from an image problem that its CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) wants to get behind them, provided select farmers with a superpig 10 years earlier as a part of a publicity stunt, where the farmers would raise them, and, eventually, the best superpig would be chosen from the lot and celebrated. As such, Okja is seized from Mija, and after being lied to by her grandfather, she goes on a quest to take back the animal from the hands of Mirando, who have significantly less-than-good intentions for the animal. Along the way, she’ll meet an evil Mirando-sponsored TV wildlife expert (a just fucking wacky Jake Gyllenhaal), travel the globe and join forces with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF for short), whose leader (a shockingly earnest and lovely Paul Dano) wants the best for the girl. It’s a lot of ground to cover in two hours, but it just flies by.
To be frank, one must not walk into a Bong Joon-ho film expecting thematic consistency. You might possibly get whiplash during this film, as the tonal shifts are jarring enough to break necks if you aren’t prepared. For much of the runtime, humor is the name of the game: There’s an ample amount of poop and fart jokes, and the silly veneer works enough wonders that you’ve got to wonder why Bong just doesn’t make a plain-jane comedy one day. There’s a sublimely goofy quality to all of the characters the director and his co-screenwriter, the author Jon Ronson have created — the ne’er-do-well ALF, perpetual immature fuck-up Lucy, and the hilariously unstable Gyllenhaal — and they’re all immaculately realized. Add in some brilliant, quirky set-pieces, all which highlight his immense talent as an action filmmaker (a chase scene that ends the first act ranks as one of the best-choreographed action sequences of the year, outside of Baby Driver), and you get a film, that on its merits, would look to rival something like ET.
Yet all of this serves to mask a significant cruelty beneath the surface, and make no mistake: If released in a theater, this would most definitely receive an R-rating, not for the couple of loose f-bombs that fly once Gyllenhaal and Swinton encounter any frustration, but from some severely graphic content near its end, as a slaughterhouse sequence that closes out the final act of Okja will leave you, at best, nauseated. There aren’t easy or graceful ways to talk about slaughter once you get down the nuts and bolts of the whole thing, and Bong lifts the imagery straight from your least-favorite PETA video in order to mess with you in the most painful of ways, to make you feel the tragedy that we perpetuate in order to put something between hamburger buns. The film doesn’t offer easy answers to the questions it raises about animal cruelty, and it’s a decently sensible portrayal of direct action, in that the fights in the film are all about small gains even if the actions involved are significantly more ridiculous than how they’d be in real life.
And yet all of this would be for naught if Okja herself wasn’t a convincing and lovable protagonist, and Bong has crafted a marvel in his magnificent beast. She’s one hell of a superpig, and she’s got enough variety in her actions to hook any animal lover right in the chest. She interacts naturally with the environment around her and with Ahn, and there’s a lovable clumsiness to her movements and her manner. There’s enough of The Host’s tadpole monster and its movement in her, but it’s taken to such a vastly different and more fascinating end; it’s easy for Bong to craft something that would make us want to run away from it, it’s significantly harder to him to make something worthy of genuine love. It’s such a shame that we aren’t given more time with her and Ahn at the idyllic start of the film, though we’re given one spectacular scene that illustrates Okja’s intelligence and daring, as Ahn nearly falls off a cliff and the superpig comes to her rescue. I only say that because so much of the film’s horror comes at her specific expense; whereas other animal-oriented films might showcase other characters getting the brunt of the particular horror on display, Okja suffers through enough in this film that it’s a wonder she doesn’t get crucified right at the end of it. At a certain point, you’ll hope Bong will stop the torture, much like the ALF prays for in the film itself when observing a particularly horrible moment in her captivity, but then you’ll remember the burger you ate for lunch and feel just as queasy.
Each of Bong’s films have been inherently political, as much of great science-fiction is — it’d be hard to walk away from something like The Host or Snowpiercer without at least acknowledging the capitalist/imperialist critiques that inform much of his work — and Okja’s no exception. It’s perhaps the most obvious and directly comedic portrayal of corporate culture in his work, one that also seems to acknowledge the ineptitude rather than malice that lies behind the business world’s corruption. There are a couple of images that land a little flat (a shot of the Mirando board watching a news report about Okja’s escape directly references this famous image of the Bin Laden raid, which implies certain things about the Obama figure’s connections to the big bad lurking around the edges of the frame), but mostly, it’s wildly funny up until it isn’t. Swinton’s darkly funny here, evoking both her own role in Burn After Reading and Frances McDormand’s in her two roles, but her end is, to say the least, a bit unsatisfying. As well, this broad criticism doesn’t extend to the ALF, who, if anything, are portrayed as just a little bit too caring and involved with their cause, with the occasional character flaw or awful choice excused by their passion (as an intentional mistranslation right at the middle of the film shows), but it’s significantly less bothersome than it’d be in another, less bleak, film. It’s nice to know that there’s pure-hearted people fighting against the corporatist abyss, and that may be our only salve here, at least in a macro sense.
As it stands, Okja may not be the best film Bong Joon-ho has ever made — that distinction still probably goes to the impossibly well-tuned Snowpiercer — but it may be my personal favorite of his work, just given how utterly weird and heartfelt it is. This’ll probably be a less-than-great success for Netflix, but it’s now proving to filmmakers everywhere that they’re willing to finance specific visions, free from the difficulties audience testing and metrics like Cinemascore. It’s an exciting and crackerjack marvel when it wants to be, and it’s harrowing and disturbing when it wants to remind you that what you’re seeing is, in fact, based on the facts of animal slaughter and consumption. It’s a heartbreaking and gorgeous film that runs the gambit of emotion but never hits on a false note. Out of all the sanitized entertainment that we enjoy these days, it’s nice to see a fairy tale rooted, much like its ancestors, in the horrors of the world, and endowed the magic that it takes to stave that darkness off.
‘Okja’ hits Netflix on June 28. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.