In “Okja” Nothing gets between a Girl and her Super-Pig
I’ll admit, it was a little weird to see the red letters that make up the Netflix logo pop up on a movie screen. Even though the streaming titan has been distributing films and screening them at some of the worlds most prestigious film festivals since 2015's Beasts of No Nation, this was the first time I personally was going to pay money to see a movie that I had the option of viewing at home.
The main reason I decided to see this movie in a theater rather than my bedroom (besides the fact that I still enjoy going to the theater and I didn’t have to worry about people outside my window playing music at an egregious volume right when I’m about to watch a movie), is that this is the newest film from South Korean filmmaker Boon J0on-ho; the same director who directed two of my favorite thrillers of the last decade (Memories of Murder and Mother) and one of the most inventive monster movies I’ve ever seen (The Host).
This film, Okja, is about a little orphaned girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) who goes on a mission to save the large animal that gives the film its title. You see Okja is not just your average farm animal, Okja is described as a “super pig,” one who has been created in a lab in an attempt to confront global food shortage. The company that created Okja is called the Mirando Corporation and its CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, excellent as always), a very showy corporate executive, reveals to a group of journalists that in order to save the planet from a food crisis, the company must get into the business of breeding genetically modified pigs. Now even a starving man would think twice about eating something produced in a lab and not a farm if you told him exactly where it came from, so to ease the minds of her future customers, Lucy announces a global competition; 26 of these super-pig’s will be placed in 26 different countries around the world, with one being selected as the number one super-pig in 10 years time; that pig will then be brought to New York City in a public showcase to promote the genetically modified meat.
We are then placed in a mountainside area of South Korea where Mija and Okja live happily together — Mija is an orpahn and lives with her grandfather, a farmer who was tasked with raising Okja. Mija loves Okja and Okja loves her back, with the ten year mark approaching, Mija isn’t afraid that the Mirando Corporation will be coming to take Okja away, because her her grandfather has told her that he has paid to keep Okja. It turns out that her grandfather has in fact, not purchased Okja, so once Dr. Johnny Wilcox — a zoologist and eccentric television personality played with enormous energy, and zaniness from Jake Gyllenhaal (imagine Steve Irwin on bath salts) — comes to inspect Okja, he quickly is marveled by her and proclaims her to be the number one super pig in the world. Mija, star-struck by the television host is whisked away by her grandfather, who says that they shoudl visit the graves of Mija’s parent. It is there that Mija sees that the visit — and the gift of a golden pig from her grandfather, bought with the money that he says he paid for Okja — is a distraction. Wilcox, along with employees of the Mirando Corporation, load Okja up in a truck, whisk her away to Seoul, where then she will be brought to New York and then, well, I’m sure you can guess where all pigs — super or otherwise — end up.
Thankfully for the giant gray creature, Mija is not going to wallow in sorrow over the lost of her best friend, against her grandfathers wishes and against a giant global corporation, Mija is adamant, and tenacious in her goal of getting back the third member of her family.
Now if this movie was just one pre-teen girl vs the world, and while Mija is tougher than most of the people you’ll see in armored suits and fast cars this summer, she wouldn’t really stand a chance. However, by chance, she finds herself involved with a animal rights group called the Animal Liberation Front, or “ALF.” The ALF is run by Jay (Paul Dano, never cooler) and is an organization who are extremely passionate about protecting animals. They don ski masks, wear all black and come up with elaborate plans to achieve their goals. They kind of remind me of the Black Bloc, the far left organization, except that the ALF doesn’t wish harm on any creature — human or animal — and from their actions in this movie they actually achieve things, and are perhaps more fun to be around. The ALF wants the same thing Mija wants, to save Okja, but not for the same reasons. The ALF want to use Okja to help bring down the Mirando Corporation and put a stop to the production of genetically modified pigs. Mija doesn’t care about their plans or the Mirando Corporation, all she wants is to bring Okja back home. However, with the some not sacred use of translation, Jay is convinced that Mija has given the ALF her blessing to use Okja in their overal plan to bring down Mirando. So with a recording device attached to the super pig, the ALF leave Okja to get recaptured.
It’s safe to say that Mija, even on camera being carried away by a group of police officers, will eventually get to re-unite with her pet super pig is a given. That part of the story is what I will leave for you to experience and I want to make clear, that even though yes, you have the option of seeing this on your flat-screen TV, your laptop or (for the love of Cecil B. DeMille) your phone, you really should see Okja in a theater.
It took me a while to get into Okja, but once the chase was on, it all started to gel together. Like many of Joon-ho’s previous works, on the surface, the narrative is centered on a mission with a specific goal: detectives trying to stop a serial killer in Memories of Murder; a mother trying to prove her son’s innocence in Mother; a family trying to rescue a little girl from a monster in The Host; a group of lower class people fighting their way to the front of a train in Snowpiercer; and now, a little girl trying to get back her pet super pig. Of course, this being a Joon-ho film, this is much more to it than that and the director does little to hide what his message actually is. While I do appreciate more subtlety in art, I was so pleased with Okja, in the last two weeks I have walked away from screenings disappointed at the work presented by big name filmmakers — Sophia Coppola and Edgar Wright — that part of me really did fear I was going to be 0–3 at the movie theaters for me when it came to seeing new auteur films this summer. Thankfully — for my own sanity — Joon-ho has delivered a fun, action packed and sometimes deeply unsettling movie.
The script, penned by Joon-ho and screenwriter Jon Ronson (Frank) is tight, the use of CGI is surprisingly effective for a movie that costs less than $100 million dollars to produce, the costumes worn by Swinton, Gyllenhaal and Seo-hyun help them stick out on screen and are an added bonus to their performances (still up in the air about Gyllenhaal, at some points I found it brilliant at other times almost Jim Carrey-esque and not in a good way).
Not everyone is happy that Netflix is producing movies and releasing them at the same time they will be presented on their platform. However, if this is really the future of film, where a filmmaker like Joon-ho can bring together actors of different countries and put them in different location around the world. To show that we are not as different as our home countries suggest we are. Then I’m all for it. I’m hoping for a rich and long relationship between directors the likes of Joon-ho and Netflix and even nobody is playing music outside my window, I’ll still not settle for seeing a movie outside of the theater, no matter how nice my TV is.