Bong Joon-ho’s Okja has Spielberg’s attention to childlike devotion and joy. On one level, anyway, this genre-hopping film is about a young woman and her devotion for a friendly, oversized beast. But this is the same filmmaker who has brought everything from Mother to Snowpiercer, so he also makes room for a cheeky, grim, cynical worldview. Okja doubles as a treatise on the evils of globalism and big agriculture, with business leaders and environmental groups all jockeying for access to the same genetically-engineered superpig. The varied tones and moods all coalesce into a bizarrely satisfying entertainment. And given the platform on which Ojka is now available, more eyeballs will see this film than a typical theatrical release*.
The Mirando Corporation is looking for new ways to market the lab-generated creatures they research in underground labs. CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) comes up with a glossy, indelibly effect public relations gimmick: she announces the discovery of a new “superpig,” sending out twenty-six of them into small farms around the world, and in ten years they’ll reunite in New York, with a splashy event that shows off how macro and micro-scale food production can coexist.
Okja is the superpig living in a small Korean farm, and her caretaker is Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn). Over the course of many years, she developed quite the rapport with the superpig. Okja is a delightful creature, looking like an oversized hippo, except with more personality, intelligence, and domestication. Bong is not queasy about its biological imperatives, either, and there are multiple scenes where she unleashes a hilarious torrent of shit.
The structure falls the familiar journey of a reluctant hero. Representatives from Mirando, led by the surly TV host Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), take Okja as part of their “We’re not really evil” campaign. Mija schemes to rescue Okja, and a daring escape leads her to unlikely allies: Paul Dano plays Jay, the leader of the Animal Liberation Front, and they plan to use Okja as a means to expose Mirando’s cruelty to the world. The film follows all these players, including Okja, all the way to New York and the animal production floors where she might meet her ultimate fate, to become untold thousands of hot dogs.
Okja is a film for everyone, insofar that it’s a varied and ambitious. Don’t care about sad scenes of a suffering superpig? Don’t worry – there will be a bizarre character scene where the likes of Tilda Swinton or Jake Gyllenhaal ape for the camera. On top of all that, Bong has two chase sequences that approach Mad Max Fury Road in terms of inventiveness and excitement. The first is in Seoul, the second in New York, and Bong favors goofy sight gags over suspense. The Animal Liberation Front are diehard about their anti-suffering stance, for example, so they quietly explain to Mirando employees how no harm will befall. The language barrier is its own source of comedy: Steven Yuen plays K, another animal activist, and his limited Korean leads to mix-ups that are funny or devastating.
Bong Joon-Ho is not a timid filmmaker. He has no issues with taking famous actors, and turning them into broad, borderline offensive caricatures. Swinton, Dano, and especially Gyllenhaal all work in favor of the film’s gallows humor. Swinton has an opening f-bomb that is a clear announcement of the corporate bottom line, while Gyllenhaal contorts his face and body like he’s plagued by existential doubt (his performance rivals Nicolas Cage in terms of pure mania). This cumulative worldview is deeply skeptical of institutions, no matter what their purpose, and these institutions distort humanity until we become a husk of themselves. Maybe the only sane solution is abandon civilization altogether, communing with nature while living in the mountains. The difference between Spielberg and Bong, however, is that Spielberg wants to restore hope, and Bong thinks that any such effort is hilariously inept.
* Okja debuts today on Netflix, after premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. In terms of star power, it may be the streaming company’s biggest film yet. It’s also a good fit for Netflix, since word-of-mouth travels faster when you do not need to travel to your local art-house theater.