On Okja, super-pigs, weaponized poop, and the political value of blind youthful idealism
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Screenplay: Joon-ho Bong and Jon Ronson
Starring: Seo-Hyun Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins, Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall and Hee-Bong Byun
Not rated / 2 hours, 1 minute / 2.35:1
Limited release / Netflix
(out of four)
Thirteen-year-old Mija is not starring in the movie she thinks she's starring in.
It's for the best she doesn't know. She's going to discover quite enough already.
The one she thinks she's starring in is a very simple one. Her pet - who also happens to be her best friend - has been stolen, and she has no choice but to get Okja, the super-pig, back. No matter what her grandfather has to say about it. No matter how many armed guards she has to evade to get to it. No matter how many masked resistance groups she has to collude with, how many delaying tactics those smooth-talking corporate captors try to throw at her, how many competing interests get in her way.
Joon-ho Bong's Okja is two visions of the same story, played concurrently, at different frequencies. Mija's is the more innocent version - or at least simple in its motivation and clear-eyed in its morality. And then there's the other one, with its weary understanding of the bigger picture - the one with the sharper judgment but dulled emotional fortitude. The one that knows the mechanisms of the game, laughs and cries at it, knows how to twist its knife into it. It's the invisible interaction between those two angles that gives the film its modular tension, with the emotional sincerity of its kid-on-a-mission working perpetually with and against the jaded, sardonic eyes of the world (and its audience) conspiring to puncture it.
To an extent this dynamic is nearly always in play in films with young protagonists; one of my biggest pet peeves is the automatic writing-off of "kids' movies" (and/or movies about kids), an attitude I encounter with all too much frequency among even sophisticated viewers and writers, who mistake a naïve point-of-view for naïvete of the film itself - an adolescent milieu for intellectual, ideological or artistic immaturity. There's an assumption that, by the very nature of the film's orientation, it's dumbed-down. Or easy. Never mind what this might say of such a viewer's (in)ability to empathize, it's also a fundamental misunderstanding of the specific prism through which these stories operate. Perhaps this is neither here nor there; point is, Okja is shrewdly instructive about its own point-of-view. By placing this uncomplicated, child-centric narrative front and center, Bong underscores the relationship between her innocent reality and our harsher one - the film's more omniscient perspective mitigating her stakes, her emotional investment mitigating the film's satirical darts. Okja's contrasting currents are both flowing in the same direction, but for largely unrelated reasons.
Everything rests in the interplay between the childish and the grown-up - particularly because of what it says about grownups. I mean, how come they're so great anyway. They're the ones that got Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) - and themselves - into this mess of a global scandal in the first place. Here is what the grownups did: They genetically engineered a new breed of super-pig, put the onus of raising this new breed on individual farmers from across the globe, and then came back a decade later to claim their property, incurring the wrath of an exceedingly loyal young girl in South Korea. "They" is the Mirando Corporation, a family business led by the enthusiastically awkward new CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who publicly denounces her more ruthless father and twin sister as she kicks off her reign with a decade-long super-pig contest designed to win the very hearts they hope to clog with their new line of delicious, efficiently produced, environmentally friendly pig products.
"They" is also the colorful nature-and-wildlife TV host brought in as a pseudo-propagandistic arm of the company's public-outreach department, and "they" is also the PR and media entities that try to shape Mija's pursuit of her prized pig for their own purposes, and "they" is also the Animal Liberation Front, whose own rescue mission ("or," cuing Hans Landa, "some would call it, terrorist plot") coincides with Mija's and who sneakily use her objectives only to bolster their own. She doesn't have the political motivations of the group, though surely this period of her life may shape her consciousness in the future. She doesn't have any financial or public-relations investment. In fact, one of the things that makes her so endearing is she has such little patience for anybody else's shit. Their ulterior motives mean nothing - even if they happen to dovetail with her own end-game. She doesn't want to play the game. She just wants her Okja back.
They grew up together, after all. Near the top of a mountain in a remote spot in the countryside, they raised each other and were each other's best (or only) friend. An early 20-minute sequence establishes the casual warmth of this relationship, and we get a good look at the cheerful, mischievous super-pig in all its CGI glory, looking like an oversized, flappy-eared dog. (The effect isn't necessarily seamless, but the detail put into Okja's facial features and body language - and the endearingly clumsy, yet careful way she interacts with her environment, not unlike Pete's eponymous Dragon last year - make her an instantly lovable character and a more-than-worthy cause.)
The cruelty of Mirando Corp's breeding strategy is that they've commissioned people to raise and nurture these super-pigs - and inevitably get attached to them - with the agreed-upon plan to take back their property, leaving only a bit of fleeting celebrity as the final prize. But the positioning of the big corporation as the epicenter of exploitation and greed is an easy enough sell - Bong knows that. The film has didacticism to spare (as did the director's English-language debut, the blotchy but marvelous Snowpiercer), but he makes so much more of his antagonists than simple avatars of self-interest. He turns them into wild absurdities, painting the mighty and powerful in overtly childish shades. In one scene meant to be a moment of personal and professional triumph, Swinton's character is dressed in an infantile, shapeless, poofy pink dress - and a pink flower in her hair, to boot! - looking like a little kid who got to pick out her own outfit for a piano recital. Then there's Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as the shrill Saturday-morning zoologist Johnny Wilcox - sort of a combination of Steve Irwin, Takashi Fujii and Steve from Blue's Clues - whose oversized television personality has essentially become his real personality. (Except, in the character and performance's best touch, for the occasional moments when he turns on his Serious Message Voice.) The way Bong approaches his personalities, characterizations and motivations - and the work he and his costume designers, Se-yeon Choi and Catherine George, do to make these people look not just ridiculous but ridiculous in very specific ways - goes so much farther than traditionally villainous interpretations could. In his fashion choices, styles of performance, politics and genre mixtures, he builds Okja out of competing moods and temperaments, and the effect is as thrilling as it is glaringly erratic. Still, the fact that this is my least-favorite of his films so far is more a testament to his work - Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother make for quite a legacy already - than an indictment on Okja. I mean, how can you not like a movie that features a giant pig gleefully projectile-pooping as a weapon against would-be captors?
The film certainly wears its heart on its sleeve, but it would be a mistake to simply call it an argumentative film. The focus is on Mija herself, and the people and systems that use and exploit her - or, more broadly, that cravenly leverage basic human needs against corporate or ideological interests. Mirando wants us all to adore Okja the Super-Pig, too ... but in a mascot sort of way. Mija just had to go and take it personally. But that's where the film ultimately finds its soul: Despite Okja's anger and its polemical impulses, the world that tries to make a pawn of Mija gets scornfully rejected, its cynicism exposed by unsuspecting eyes.