From visionary South Korean director Bong Joon Ho comes a film that defies categorization. “Okja” has elements of family entertainment, sci fi fantasy, cultural satire and more all wrapped up in a cautionary tale about genetically modified meat. It’s a big, handsome and entertaining adventure that not so subtly poises questions about the relationship between corporations and where are food comes from.
In its opening minutes the story of a girl and her super-pig feels almost like a Disney movie. 14-year-old Mija (An Seo Hyun) and Okja, a gigantic genetically engineered swine bred to become a food source, live a quiet life in the far-flung mountains of South Korea. They romp and play, bonded by ten years together and the animal’s gentle, protective nature. They are a human-porcine Milo and Otis, inseparable until Mirando Corporation CEO Lucy (Tilda Swinton) recalls Okja is back to the United States.
Created by in an agrichemical laboratory in New Jersey, the adorable Ojka was created to “consume less feed, produce less excretions” and to make people fall in love with an animal they are going to end up eating. “Soon supermarkets will be filled with their flesh and their organs.” Transported to New York, the animal is slated to become the kind face of Lucy’s plan to end world hunger while increasing her company’s bottom line. Working with Mirando but wrestling with the ethics of the situation is celebrity zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (an unhinged Jake Gyllenhaal).
Concerned with appearances Lucy tries to exploit the Mija’s and Okja’s relationship for PR purposes but Mija has other ideas. Working to make sure Okja doesn’t end up on a giant BBQ, Mija comes to the rescue, aided by the Animal Liberation Front, a crafty and idealistic group led by Jay (Paul Dano) and Red (Lily Collins).
“Okja” features strong work from Swinton—in a double role, playing Lucy and her even more cutthroat sister Nancy—and a wild performance from Gyllenhaal but it really is all about the bond between the girl and her super-pig. An Seo Hyun’s moon face conveys her pure and sincere love for Okja but it is the beast itself who brings heart to the movie. A combo of CGI and puppetry Okja is a strange animal but a tender one. He rescues Mija from danger and later, when she returns the favour, the bond between them is palpable.
That relationship smooths the way for the rest of this uneven but entertaining movie. The way “Okja” veers between action and comedy, horror and social commentary could lead to whiplash but it is never less than audacious.