Okja isn’t an epic film, and yet it’s far bigger than it needs to be. What should have been a quiet, ruminative portrait of a girl and her pet is instead a preachy, grandiose commentary on business ethics, animal rights, and the meat industry, punctuated by wild melodramatic shifts between broad comedy and heart-wrenching drama. Given that the director and co-writer is Bong Joon-ho and that the film takes place in both the United States and South Korea, I admit that a cultural gap may be to blame for my less than enthusiastic reaction. But I’m only responsible for my personal cinematic tastes, not for understanding every nuance of another country’s narrative techniques and traditions.
The film, which has been simultaneously released in theaters and made available on Netflix, begins in 2007, when Lucy Mirando, the CEO of a powerful yet vaguely described multinational company (Tilda Swinton), announces the next innovation in the fight against world hunger: A new species of animal dubbed the Super Pig, which looks not like a pig at all but rather like a hippo. As she stands there in high heels flashing teeth covered in braces, she happily asserts that the Super Pig was discovered in South America and has been safely transferred to labs in the United States, where they will then be transferred to farms all over the world and raised until they’re ready in ten year’s time.
Mirando obviously didn’t give reporters the whole story, and it should be clear that the only reason she’s doing this at all is to escape the legacy of her father, a successful yet cruel businessman. She also wants to one-up her twin sister (also Swinton), who’s just as ambitious as Lucy yet far less underhanded. Anyway, we flash forward to present day South Korea, where, at a farm located in the mountains, a teenage girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) lives an isolated existence with her elderly grandfather and the Super Pig Mirando sent for raising, who has been dubbed Okja. Mija and Okja, the latter a plausible computer-generated creation, are inseparable best friends. They spend their days playing in nearby ponds, collecting fish, and napping in the shade.
The film is at its best when these two characters are the main focus. I would have been happy to not be told a traditional story, to simply watch them be friends and let their bond do all the explaining. At first, the film seemed to be going in that direction. But then, just like that, the two are plunged into a harrowing ordeal that awkwardly mixes slapstick humor and weepy drama. It begins when Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a flamboyant TV zoologist and the celebrity face of Mirando’s company (Jake Gyllenhaal), arrives at Mija’s farm with a camera crew, ready to take Okja back to the United States, where it’s said she will take part in parade-like ceremony in New York City.
Sitting there in the screening room, I admired Mija’s dogged tenacity at trying to reunite with her beloved pet. She lets absolutely nothing stop her; not even hanging off the back of a moving semi truck can deter her. What I didn’t admire was the radical animal rights activists, led by Paul Dano, swooping into the story like heist typecasts and roping Mija into their scheme to (1) save Okja’s life, and (2) expose the evils of Mirando’s company, which won’t be revealed by me but are easy enough to figure out. How can I take these characters seriously when they’re developed on sweeping generalizations? No true animal rights activist would refuse to eat anything at all out of the belief that every single method of growing food is a subversive corporate plot.
But the real failures of the film are Swinton and Gyllenhaal, who were directed to play their characters as grotesque, overblown, cruel stereotypes. I have to blame Bong Joon-ho, because I’ve seen Swinton and Gyllenhaal in plenty of other films, and I know they’re capable of much more believable and engaging performances. What was the intention? Were their characters supposed to be satirical? Exactly what was being satirized? Certainly no one currently on TV or in business. These characters – indeed, all subplots that featured them – weren’t necessary. The only parts of Okja that were needed were the ones with the title character and her best friend, especially when they were at their farm, caring only about each other.