South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho is developing a reputation for making robust films which blend adventure and intellect with searing critiques of environmental mismanagement and political propaganda. In The Host, the story of a rampaging mutated monster unfolds against the backdrop of careless chemical dumping and misleading media information. In Snowpiercer, attempts to halt global warming backfire, only to re-produce, and even exacerbate, class relations amongst the remaining survivors. And, most recently, in Okja, Joon-Ho (with a screenplay co-written with Jon Ronson) explores animal cruelty and the horrific realities of meat production whilst condemning manipulative corporate publicity and marketing. This is not the director’s strongest work (that accolade, in this reviewer’s opinion, goes to Snowpiercer), but it nevertheless embodies solid and assured direction despite some inconsistencies in tone.
In 2007, a global competition is announced by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of the Miranda Corporation. The company has been breeding special genetically modified ‘superpigs’, and twenty-six farmers from around the world have each been tasked with raising and nurturing one each. In ten years’ time, a winner will be announced. One such pig – Okja – has been raised by a South Korean farmer and his granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) in an isolated hillside village. At the end of the competition, Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), an eccentric zoologist and TV personality hired by the Mirando Corporation, comes to take Okja to New York, much to Mija’s dismay. She embarks on a journey to rescue Okja with the help of animal-rights activist group Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and their leader Jay (Paul Dano). The film follows Mija’s unwavering attempts to reunite with Okja, whilst also revealing the confronting realities, and potential future, of food production.
The ensemble of performances is generally strong, although perhaps collectively they end up rendering the film conspicuously inconsistent in tone. Swinton combines elements of previous performances in her incarnation of a ruthless CEO – the nervous anxiety of her unethical lawyer in Michael Clayton, the opportunistic and outlandish Minister Mason in Snowpiercer – and crafts a character that is somehow both believable and yet cartoonish, and is all the more scary because of it. Dano is well cast as the leader of the ALF, bringing a sombre, devoted and calm temperament to his performance. But it is Gyllenhaal, given an opportunity to be more oddball than in previous roles, who perhaps overdoes it. He could have demonstrated more shades and layers, especially in his character’s arc before and after the contest. His over-the-top wackiness descends into caricature, and this jars against the grounded relationship between Mija and Okja, which is the main focus of the film.
Mija’s ferocity and determination is the heart and soul of the film, initially framed by her carefree interactions with Okja, and later the fearlessness of her rescue attempts. The musical score by Jaeil Jung – plaintive and yet uplifting, reflective and gently soaring – provides a moving backdrop. It is this central relationship – between a young girl and her animal friend – which makes Okja an entertaining and moving critique of corporate culture, greed and environmental neglect. Seeing the purity of their relationship provokes us to reflect on the existing estrangement and cold instrumentality of human-animal relations, whilst also prompting us to think about how rapidly developing biotechnologies may lead to new forms and scales of animal abuse.
Okja is currently screening on Netflix.