Bong Joon-Ho is what Steven Spielberg and Hayao Miyazaki would be like if they had huge, swinging balls – and you know that they have huge, swinging balls because they’re constantly dangling them in the audience’s face. Subtlety is not something that exists in Joon-Ho’s world, as he likes Big Ideas, Banal Humor, and Cynical Stories. It makes his films difficult to sit through, and oftentimes almost bad. However, like the masters of old, Joon-Ho keeps his heart in the right place and his eye on the target, resulting in a hilarious, haunting, and heartbreaking look at the modern state of the food industry.
In 2007, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) the new head of the corrupt Mirando Corporation, wants to redeem the company’s reputation in the eyes of the public with a brand new scheme: thanks to the discovery of a Super Piglet (essentially a half-cow, half-pig creation that’s three times the size of bovine), which will provide twice the meat at half the carbon footprint, they will be holding a contest to see which farmer from around the world can raise the largest pig. Cut to ten years later in South Korea, where young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has grown attached to her beloved Okja, the world’s largest super piglet. Promised that she will get to keep Okja if she can raise the money, she discovers this was all a ruse, and the Mirando Corporation’s disturbed figurehead, Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), takes the piglet off to be bred, embarrassed, and cooked. Mija decides to head to New York to rescue her best friend, and soon finds herself caught in the middle of environmental warfare between a corrupt corporation, an inept team of vegans, and an uncaring world.
If I came away from this film learning anything, it’s that I would love to know what Joon-Ho is smoking, but God knows I would never crawl around in his mind. This is a man who is seriously disturbed, but knows exactly how to use that distress to create art. I think the oddest thing about the film is how comically un-subtle it is. Like all great films of its kind, from E.T. to Spirited Away, the film uses bombasticity and humor to build to its message. This is seen in the first sequence, with Tilda Swinton’s ridiculously on-the-nose opening scene to whatever the hell Jake Gyllenhaal is doing (we’ll get to him in a minute), or a satirical look at an office building. Perhaps the funniest scene in the movie is a sequence in a mall, where non-violent environmental soldiers known as the Animal Liberation Front battle armed police and corporate soldiers to the tune of “Annie’s Song” by John Denver. The sequence is bizarre, hilarious, and wonderful, all at the same time. And speaking of the ALF, let’s talk about that. Most films with a vegetarian or environmental lean would play the ALF as the heroes. However, Joon-Ho isn’t that simple. Instead, he plays the ALF for laughs, portraying them as well-meaning but inept “do-gooders,” out solely for their own agenda and so absurd they’re accidentally killing themselves due to their refusal to even eat plants. They apologize whenever they have to do battle with other humans, and most of their combat involves umbrellas and the old “trip ‘em with marbles” routine. It’s an interesting, bizarre angle, and one that I respect infinitely more than the same-old same-old.
However, like the best satire, this film is funny until it isn’t. Sure, we laugh at the first half of Doctor Strangelove or Brazil, but eventually the terrifying reality steps in, and the weight of it all kills any chance of the giggles. That turn comes the minute this film enters the Mirando Corporation’s underground slaughterhouses, and the reality of how our food is prepared comes to full fruition. Forced breeding, animal abuse, and brutal executions overwhelm the senses in the worst possible ways. There’s a reason that films like this are more successful at helping people understand flaws in society or turn people vegetarian than documentaries about slaughterhouses: when we watch those documentaries, no matter how realistic or painful they are, the film hasn’t done anything to attach us to those animals. As far as the viewer is concerned, it’s just a massive herd of cows or chickens, nothing more. By individualizing an animal the way a film can, and helping us attach ourselves to Okja, we are forced to watch something we’ve grown attached to be tortured, beaten, abused, and eventually, put on the chopping block. It’s the reason we grew so attached to Bambi back in the day. And Okja is so brutal about it, this very staunch meat eater is very seriously considering becoming pescetarian. Even more so, the film ups the ante on similar films of the genre. While films like E.T. or Bambi pits the innocence of kids versus the folly of adults, this film takes an even darker approach: outside of children, this film openly hates humans, be they CEOs, animal rights activists, or Steve Irwin-esque zoologists. There is no character audiences can root for outside of Mija. Everyone is out for themselves, with little or no compassion for anything else in this world. However, while this darkness is certainly remarkable, it also makes the final scene a bit of a chore to sit through. In a good satire, even while you get darker as you go along, the key is to end on the most bombastic image possible. The problem here is that the only time in the film that Joon-Ho uses subtlety is in that final scene. Even if the film were to go out with an uplifting ending, it just leaves the audience with a foul taste in their mouths, instead of a bitter-but-respected aftertaste.
Satire is done best when the performances are in the pocket between “good” and “over-the-top,” and luckily, that’s where most of Okja’s fall. Tilda Swinton is widely considered a national treasure, and that’s on perfect display here, thanks to her nuanced, hilariously inept take on Lucy Mirando. First seen with braces, and determined to turn her corrupt company around, Swinton throws her all into her portrayal, pulling off many of the film’s biggest laughs. I also loved Paul Dano as Jay, the leader of the ALF. Dano has a way of playing every role incredibly straight, no matter how ridiculous his dialogue gets. He has a great scene where he is literally only wearing different clothes and he thinks he has to explain to Mija it’s a disguise, and it works almost exclusively because of Dano’s dedication. Young Ahn Seo-hyun is about as strong as Henry Thomas was in E.T., meaning it may not be the most memorable performance, but it’s the one that makes the film work. I also enjoyed performances from Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Daniel Henshall, and Devon Bostick, but if there’s anyone you’re going to be talking about after this film, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal plays the face of the Mirando Corporation, Johnny Wilcox. Wilcox is a former television personality that studied animals – think of him as an evil cross between Steve Irwin and Bill Nye. And to nail that balance just right, Gyllenhaal chooses to throw anything resembling nuance out the window. This performance isn’t even Big with a capital B. This performance is BIG, capital everything. It’s ridiculous, pained, evil, and irritating all at the same time. And I loved it. I may be the only one who does, but this is a performance I will never forget, and for that reason, I think it is one of the best.
Okja is one of the year’s most bizarre films. It really pushes what you can handle from the filmmaker, in terms of style and substance. You may enter it laughing, but you’ll finish it off in pained silence. It’s not perfect, and it could benefit from a few tweaks to strengthen it, but I’m glad I saw it. I’m glad filmmakers are allowed to make films like this. I’m glad that filmmakers are still allowed to push the boundaries like this. And I’m glad someone like Netflix is making sure people can see it, even if it belongs on the big screen above all else.