I wonder how many vegetarians Okja will create? Bong Joon-ho’s new film (his first since the gonzo Snowpiercer) begins as your typical “a girl and her giant pig-thing” film, then metamorphoses into a scathing and soul-crushing attack on the agriculture-industrial complex. Anyone with a bacon sandwich will probably want to finish it before the final act.
Okja starts with a press conference, at which the Mirando Corporation’s CEO Lucy (Tilda Swinton) – think Bette Davis’ Baby Jane as a corporate executive – reveals her plan to end world hunger: the super pig. Discovered in Chile, 26 super piglets are sent to 26 farms across the globe, and in ten years the best (and, hopefully, most delicious) super pig will be unveiled.
One piglet is sent to South Korea, where she is named Okja and raised by young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather. Mija spends her days frolicking with Okja through the forests that surround her mountain home. She picks fruit with Okja, fishes with Okja, and whispers her innermost thoughts into Okja’s ear.
Okja is a wonderfully realised creature, part pig, part hippo, and all unruly toddler. The visual effects are sublime, imbuing Okja with a genuine physicality, and Bong shoots Okja as if she were really there, on set, instead of something to be added later. The human performers help, too, never shying away from riding Okja, stroking her, climbing into her mouth, patting her bum as she poos (no, really, Mija pats Okja’s bum to help her poo).
Mija’s idyllic life is interrupted when representatives from Mirando turn up on her doorstep. They are joined by TV vet Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, who seems to become more inebriated with every scene he’s in), the face of Mirando, who judges Okja to be the best super pig and carts her off back to the USA. Mija, understandably, is none too pleased, and leaves her home to rescue her best friend.
What ensues, for an hour at least, is a tonally uneven action comedy. This is no surprise; Snowpiercer was no stranger to wild shifts in tone. But Snowpiercer had a momentum to match its titular train, while Okja often gets mired in its own eccentricities. The comedy lands more often than not (Okja has a good sideline in toilet humour), but the attempts at satire – centred around both the Mirando Corporation and the Animal Liberation Front who swoop in to aid Mija – never get off the ground. The script, co-written by Frank’s Jon Ronson, just doesn’t have the teeth for it.
The right sort of teeth, at least. When we reach Okja’s second hour, things take a decidedly darker turn and largely stay there. Bong’s ultimate goal – the mistreatment of animals by the intensive farming industry – finally rears its head and Okja goes to a place no one was expecting. Clearly a film about a young child saving her animal bestie would involve a certain degree of peril, but Bong’s commitment to showing the darker side of meat production is staggering.
Staggering, too, is the climax. Okja takes what could have been an easy victory, a simple resolution, and turns it into a heartbreaking walk down death row. There is victory, but it is small, and tempered by the sense that nothing has actually changed. These characters might get what they want, but the rest of the animals being led to the slaughter? We all knew what was going to happen to them even before the film began.
The ending alone is enough to recommend Okja. Your mileage may vary on the preceding film, but once the credits roll the vegetarians (and vegans) among us will have reaffirmed their commitment a thousandfold, and the rest of you might just hesitate the next time you want that bacon sandwich.