On a farm in the mountains of South Korea, a girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) lives a pleasant life with her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) and her beloved pet Okja, one of many genetically engineered “super pigs” bred by the Mirando Corporation as a solvent to food shortage. When Okja is declared the best super pig, Mija is happy until she learns Okja is being taken to America where she’ll be slaughtered. So she goes on an ambitious journey to save her, crossing paths with the Animal Liberation Front, who are determined not only to rescue Okja but to take down the Mirando Corporation itself.
Okja takes the typical story of child and their pet, and turns it into an intense international action drama with very real stakes. It not only takes some unexpected turns, but is presented in a thoroughly unique way, largely due to the nature of the fictional animal and the commentary being made around it. Joon-Ho knows how to properly build tension, as well as shoot exciting action sequences. There’s a particularly thrilling one that lasts almost the duration of the runtime in Seoul. Joon-Ho also succeeds in creating a world that’s just far-fetched enough, but also just feasible enough to potentially be our own. Though there are a few areas where he displays not quite enough familiarity with America.
Despite the title, the star of the movie is Mija, and Seo-hyun is fantastic in the role. She delivers an emotionally-charged and absolute performance as a girl out of her depth but still willing to go as far as possible to save Okja. Okja herself isn’t the best CGI character, as there are a number of scenes where she doesn’t look real, but the believability comes from her relationship with Mija, and the natural attachment Seo-hyun portrays towards her. That being said, Okja is well-done in terms of looking, sounding, and behaving like an animal, down to very impressive details. And this makes you care about the character especially once she’s in real danger. Hee-bong is quite good as Mija’s grandfather. Tilda Swinton plays the grandiose CEO of the Mirando Corporation and is of course, a delightful villain; though she’s not nearly as entertaining as in Snowpiercer. Paul Dano, who’s used to playing weird roles, is the soft-spoken ideologue leader of the ALF and he’s good -his dialogue on the credo of the Front and his own beliefs can be awkwardly humourous. But as over-the-top as Swinton and Dano can be, they’ve got nothing on Jake Gyllenhaal! He plays Johnny Wilcox, a crazed zoologist who’s the public face of the company; and he’s Bear Grylls meets Douglas Reynholm looking like Ned Flanders. Gyllenhaal over-acts like I’ve never seen him before and it’s hilarious. He’s got the comedic timing down and also the sheer insanity of how the characters’ written, making for the most fun performance in the entire film. There are also good turns from Lily Collins, Shirley Henderson, Yoon Je-moon, a chilling Giancarlo Esposito, and Steven Yeun, proving he can act well in both English and Korean.
Joon-Ho really has something to say with this film about the meat industry. There are a few shots taken at animal rights activists and their methods (one character is starving himself to leave as little a carbon footprint as possible -that’s pretty funny), but the movie clearly wants to expose the inhumane treatment of livestock by siphoning it through a fictitious miracle animal. And in this, it doesn’t hold back. There are a few brutal scenes in Okja, one taking place in a slaughterhouse, that drive home the commentary Joon-Ho’s aiming for. What makes this more than a manipulative message is the films’ understanding that it isn’t entirely about that, as much as the film and this theme may be inextricably linked. This is an issue to be raised, but ultimately the needs of the story take precedence. The ending certainly attests to this, but not without imparting some powerful imagery.
Okja doesn’t have the sheer creative genius end eclectic action of Joon-Ho’s previous endeavour, but it is really original, quite meaningful, and an engaging watch. The central relationship is conveyed, and it has some terrific performances, from the genuinely effecting to the comically large. It’s one of the best Netflix movies you could watch, and a really touching, uniquely strange experience.