It’s been a while since a movie left me as raw and emotional as Bong Joon-ho’s new Netflix flick Okja, so much so that I haven’t actually eaten any pork since I saw it. Granted, that was only 15 hours ago, but as a swine guy, the mere fact that I’m considering never going back is a testament to the power of the film. And oh, what a sneaky power it wields.
Since I’m confident you’ll want a confidante afterwards, before we go on, you should probably go watch the movie. Because remaining spoiler free is going to make it really hard to discuss Joon-ho’s (Snowpiercer, The Host) gut-wrenching yet thoroughly entertaining action-adventure, semi-sci-fi drama. For as soon as I tell you who the titular character is, I’ve already spoiled a bit of a plot point. And we find that out some 10 minutes in, right after the film’s berserk, cartoonish prologue.
“As bonkers as Okja gets — and rest assured, it gets pretty bonkers — everything works because of the very real love between a small girl and her giant pig.”
We begin in 2007, with Tilda Swinton playing the first of her two roles, the braces-wearing, manically emotive Lucy Mirando, pandering to the cameras while giving her acceptance speech/sales-pitch after taking over leadership of the multi-national Mirando Corporation from her sinister twin sister, Nancy, who had taken it over from their publicly reviled grandfather. Lucy, with puppeteering guidance from Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring), is trying to steer the family food business back to prosperity, while feeding the starving world at the same time.
But in order to do so, Mirando is betting big on genetically mutated giant pigs who will revolutionize the livestock industry. To give this new species a positive spin, and ostensibly lie to the public about what they’re eating, Lucy announces a superpig contest, emceed by world-famous zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox, as played by a never-creepier Jake Gyllenhaal (and that’s saying something). Mirando gives 26 of the best “bred” pigs to farmers and ranchers across the globe, and tells the world that the best superpig will be named in a pageant in New York City in 10 years. And the public is sold.
That’s just the fucking prologue. And it gets far crazier from there, as ten years later, we visit the mountains outside of Seoul, Korea, and are eventually introduced to the idyllic life of one of those pigs, Okja, and her young master, Mija (badass teenager Seo-Hyun Ahn), as they forage for fruit and fish along the splendid countryside. We’re soon introduced to Mija’s grandfather, as he barks over a loud speaker calling for his dinner. To get home more quickly, Mija decides to lead Okja along a short cut, which jeopardizes both girl and superpig. It’s here we fully realize just what an incredible creature Okja truly is. And what a special relationship she and Mija so beautifully share. That you never question the truth of either is what makes the film so magical.
As bonkers as Okja gets – with Mirando taking their superpig back, and Mija chasing Okja from the malls of Seoul to the city streets of New York to the deranged depths of Mirando’s labs and stock yards, all while extreme animal rightist’s led by Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) challenge Mirando every step of the adventure-laden way – it all works because of the very real love between a small girl and her giant pig.
If you have a special relationship with your pet, you’ll have a hard time not welling up. And one scene in particular will likely illicit rage (that’s the scene that sent my wife off to bed, unable to go on.) Indeed, it’s a disturbing film, that sticks with you hard. I definitely hugged my dog and cat a little tighter last night. And today I have no taste for bacon, whatsoever. We’ll see what happens next time I’m offered a steak, but I do know this: because of Okja, I’ll have a hard time calling myself a true animal lover without changing my meat-eating ways.