Okja (Bong, 2017)

Awww, this was magical. I have a soft spot for adorable fantasy critters, and Okja the superpig takes the cake. The way Mija, our pint-sized heroine, bonds with her pet is so beautiful, and as an animal lover myself, my heart was swelling at their interactions. The whole film could have been Mija and Okja roaming the South Korean countryside, and I would’ve been perfectly fine with it. But this is Bong Joon-ho, and obviously he’s going to take his films to different extremes. And so, Okja is taken from her home to New York in order to be feted by the corporation that technically owns her (and all other superpigs like her), and the plot introduces radical animal rights activists, ethical quandaries, and an unsavoury plan to capitalise on the superpig boom by (what else) having them butchered and fed to the masses. If this veers close to a PSA ad for PETA, well, you could make a strong case that that’s the tone Bong is going for, especially towards the end at the abattoir. However, there’s far too much substance snugly packed into this story that I don’t want to be reductionist. The film may turn many vegan in the way it so heavily empathises with Okja’s plight, and so bluntly shows animal cruelty at its basest level, but there’s a playfulness and serenity that we shouldn’t disregard.

The cast is uniformly strong, though young Anh Seo-hyun steals the show for me: as Mija, she’s equally fierce and gentle, with a commanding resilience and a fantastic expressiveness that belies her young age. The household names are quite fun, too: Tilda Swinton is wonderfully zany, Paul Dano nails his character’s quiet edginess, and Jake Gyllenhaal… well, it’s a performance that needs to be seen to be believed. I know he’s gotten some excoriating notices, and yeah, he’s the hammiest thing in this film—yet I didn’t mind it. In fact, when the character takes a dark turn, the payoff is effective. His ham is not as genius as Tilda’s was in Snowpiercer, but it’s a good sort of head-turning move from him.

Not sure what else there is to add, other than the fact that I’m in desperate need of an Okja plushie right now. The people who are calling this live-action Miyazaki are not far off the mark at all.