Literary critic Harold Bloom once said that all the best stories “possess the quality of making you feel strangeness at home…or at home in the strange.” In South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho’s latest film Okja, he drops us clearly in the middle of all that is strange, and proceeds to make things even stranger.
The strange we enter into is the world of Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, complete with adult braces and a platinum pageboy), head of the multinational Mirando Corporation, as she introduces her newest product—the super pig. Her impassioned speech is intended not only to impress the masses but to save the reputation of the business she inherited from her corrupt father. These “super pigs” will be sent to twenty-six locations around the world to be raised naturally and organically; after ten years, they’ll be compared and assessed for size and health, and compete against each other for the title of Best Super Pig. (It’s a sort of porcine Miss Universe pageant, except for these contestants are judged for the nutritiousness of their shits instead of their ability to look great in a swimsuit.)
Our “something’s amiss” radar wouldn’t necessarily be going off were it not for the air of unsettling ambition emitted by Ms. Mirando, and her obvious co-opting of environmental language in order to appeal to the conscience of her consumers. When the jittery, reedy-voiced TV personality Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson but somehow on more drugs) is added to the mix as the competition’s host, the seeds of suspicion are firmly planted.
Flash forward ten years, where Joon Ho trades the industrial factory setting for the mountain streams and forests of South Korea. Here we meet Mija (the compelling An Seo Hun), an orphaned fourteen-year old girl, and Okja, her pet pig, who frolic and fish by day and rest with Mija’s grandfather at night. Okja—who looks like a giant hippopotamus dog—splashes and prances like a much smaller animal, seemingly unaware of her size but always aware of Mija and concerned for her safety. Mija is a practical loner, who puts her time with and care of Ojka above everything else, even her grandfather’s rules. In short, the two are best friends, utterly devoted and willing to sacrifice almost anything to be together. But when Johnny Wilcox and a small crew of Mirando employees (Yoon Je-moon and Shirley Henderson) appear panting at the top of the mountain, it’s the beginning of the end of their peaceful existence.
What follows is an extended chase scene, played out in an underground mall, the highways of Seoul, the streets of New York City, and a meat-processing plant in New Jersey. Mija is aided (and sometimes thwarted) by the Animal Liberation Army (ALF), a disorganized group of young idealists determined to expose the corruption of the Mirando Corporation (they’re led by Paul Dano, who once again excels at playing an extremist zealot). Joon Ho has an eye for creating unforgettable visuals (watch Snowpiercer if you don’t believe me), and thus each scene is highly detailed and beautiful to watch, even as the pace throttles ever forward. There are moments of bone-crunching brutality—both the police and the military are willing to use violence when necessary—but amidst even the most chaotic action sequences are moments of humor and whimsy, like when the ALF uses umbrellas to deflect tranquilizer darts, or unleashes buckets of marbles to slow their enemies.
Okja is a not so subtle morality tale; it’s views on factory farming and genetically modified food products are clear. Mirando could just as easily be Monsanto, and more than a few early reviews have noted Lucy’s similarities to a certain blonde daughter of our president. This might all sound terribly heavy-handed, except that Joon Ho never relaxes into these easy interpretations. For example, his portrayal of the ALF activists is not without its own criticism; their actions are almost as opportunistic as the people they’re protesting, and their methods are somewhat impractical (one member refuses to eat because “all food production is exploitative.”) Even more than a political morality tale, Okja is a fairy tale, one about two creatures forced to go there and back again in order to be together in peace. There’s all the darkness, absurdity, and surrealism found throughout the work of the Brother’s Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, storytellers who knew that just because something was fantastical didn’t mean it couldn’t reveal a hard truth, or urge us towards our better selves.
And what Joon Ho urges us to consider is this: we must resist the impulse to overlook the dignity of life—be that life human, animal, or ecological—simply because it’s inconvenient, or because there’s a profit to be made. And as only a master could, he does this not with plot or dialogue (though both support his vision) but with attention to detail in every setting, with the liveliness surging through his camera movement, and with the care he takes to imbue even the most minor characters with specificity and personality. I was left feeling like stuff matters, a miraculous feat in a cinematic world that’s both vast and chaotic, and a miraculous feat in the real world, where an attitude of apathy often feels necessary for survival.
Joon Ho is a daring, and dare I say, visionary filmmaker, one who can deliver farcical stories with an ease and energy that is usually absent from such ambitious projects. His movies may take us far from home, but their truth hits us right in the chest.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.