Released as Netflix’s first blockbuster – a fact that bears some weight for scholars of the industry of cinema but less for the connoisseurs of films themselves – Okja is significantly more enticing as the new film from South Korean cinemagician Bong Joon-ho, marking his second Korean-American co-language film after 2014’s Snowpiercer. A leftist parable – although less brazenly radical than Snowpiercer – this lightly Miyazaki-esque eco-critique of American capitalistic practices is extremely broad, but like Snowpiercer, it treats its populist-front, excessive sense of caricature as a boon to its political ambitions rather than a restriction on them. Both of these films lack anything resembling the delectably sinuous pitch-black brio of Joon-ho’s two best films, Mother and Memories of Murder, but they do not erase his expert knack for Warner Bros-esque absurdism, nor do they stamp out the truest quality of all his films: the commotion of conflicting energies.
Mostly heralding the continued willingness of US stars to work with Joon-ho (as well as signaling the essential vitality of Tilda Swinton), the real centerpieces of Okja are definitively non-American: Ahn Se-hyun’s spellbindingly conflicted performance as Mija, the young ward of a Korean farmer, and Okja, the CG superpig they raise. Okja is one of 26 superpigs sent to farmers across the globe by Mirando, a gigantic international food conglomerate promising that the pigs will end world hunger in some fashion. Headed by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) and with a celebrity animal lover (played, exasperatingly and confoundingly by Jake Gyllenhaal) in their hopper, the company is obviously up to no good. When Okja is voted the biggest and thus best superpig after ten years, she is on her way to the US to be crowned and then, as is a surprise to no one, slaughtered as the primest roast in Mirando’s slaughterhouse. Fighting for Okja, and theoretically to end Mirando’s terrifying practices as well as the systemic disinterest of the mainstream populace in how their food is raised, are Mija, forging her own personal rebellion and trip to America to retrieve Okja, and ALF, a youthful animal rights organization headed by Paul Dano.
It is a fundamental and probably unavoidable paradox of the beguilingly misshapen Okja that its brightest material is all lumped into its first half, where Mija and Okja reign supreme in rural Korea, riding the bubbly waves of buddy-comedy infectiousness with Mija as Abbott and Okja as her buoyantly innocent Costello. The pleasantries of these earlier segments only loosely tied to the narrative stipulations of issue cinema or wider Hollywood cinema thrum with the joy of a comic hang-out session. But larger forces conspire to conclude these breezy, effervescent ingenuities prematurely when Okja is thrown into mortal peril and Mija must trace after her. Of course, this joy disruption is much the point; the film’s personal vandalism, its act of disturbing its own pleasures, are a mimetic of sorts for the way that big business invades and intercepts both the joy of this young girl and the free-roaming lifestyle of Okja herself. The film’s inability to maintain its high is emblematic of its mission statement, its understanding that any animal’s joy is always imperiled in this world, and, of course, that we are hypocrites to participate in the fancy-free fun of the early segments when we also eat factory-produced meat.
The film’s near-masterful inflection point between pleasure and pain is a lengthy Tex Avery-like comic escapade through the streets and shops of Seoul where Mija and the ALF try to recapture Okja from Mirando. The chase, I suspect influenced by The Blues Brothers, is a minor comic masterpiece, a stretch of free-wheeling ambition and eccentric filmmaking filigrees that bat away the dry, professional quality of most blockbuster action scenes these days, scrubbed free of bumps, breakages, and personal lesions. This comic, Looney Tunes-y segment of unstoppable motion and tumbling bodies eventually staggers into a dreary corporate hell, photographed by ace cinematographer Darius Khondji with an eye for the shambles of innocence strewn about on the pavement. It’s effective stuff, but the tonal dysfunctionality of the film – its compulsion and itch to look left and move right tonally – is more inspired in concept than in execution, especially when the conclusion settles down into an anti-corporate handwringer that, while appreciated, lacks the delirious, unhinged spark of Snowpiercer.
Joon-ho’s gonzo quotient never truly subsides though, nor does his effusive personality as a filmmaker. The activists, for instance, could have been garden-variety angels, but the director fixates on their personal foibles, sometimes their incompetencies. And not in a trivial equal-opportunity-offender bid to mock the radicals as much as the corporate types and thereby neuter any cohesive political message beyond trite, nihilistic, neoliberal “every group sucks” either. The eccentricities of the crew are presented, rather, to revel in their unique individualities and the interplay of slightly disparate perspectives that loosely and sometimes thornily cohere to form any political group. Then there’s Gyllenhaal who is … doing something, I have to say, and far be it from me to sentence the man to your undying affection or revulsion, but it is a performance that exists in, and probably can only be confronted through, extremes. A bizarre ‘60s camp turn with maniacal energy and undercurrents of a sexual attraction to and a sadistic relationship with animals, it’s an irresponsible performance, but irresponsible can suggest inspiration when approached in the right mindset.
Okja is an emotional roundhouse kick, vacillating between tones wildly and with unruly indiscretion, and its irresponsible qualities can veer into legitimately problematic. Its horrors are extraordinarily caricatured, facilitating a distance from the terrors of the real world, a move, I assume, designed to allow us to feel okay about eating meat if it is slaughtered and sold by, you know, real people. Outre has its place, especially in Joon-ho’s filmography, but Okja is less outlandish in its absurdism than Snowpiercer, and thus less legitimately transgressive in completely upturning any expectation of connecting itself to the real world at any level other than the histrionic-allegorical. Okja, essentially, is either too grounded or too crayon-scrawled to render its argument without falling in the hole between reality and metaphor. The best villain performance in the film actually belongs to Giancarlo Esposito, selling a businessman’s unrelenting bottom-line fixation and essential amorality, but it has the quality of an accidental stray star wandering into the wrong film.
Still, Okja’s flaws are only guilt by association, I suppose. In Joon-ho’s filmography, Okja is neither as feverishly charged as Snowpiercer nor as politically nuanced as its most obvious analogue, The Host, and it certainly does not stand up to the beguiling noir-inflections of the aforementioned Memories of Murder and Mother. But the simple pleasures of child and pig, two unearthly and irrational friends given rhyme, reason, and a compassion that extends beyond affection, are protest enough. The early bits of Okja are radical in their refusal to cater to issues, themes, stories, narratives, or larger imperatives, so much so that the pastoral balletic, this pas de deux of human and nature, is itself an important statement against the narrative tendentiousness of mainstream cinema, against many films’ perennial inability to render the little moments that do not need to cater to obviously cater to more important questions. The opening moments of Okja, by virtue of avoiding these larger questions, speak vibrantly to themes of companionship and humanity that most message movies avoid like the plague. It’s certainly a pity that the film strays so far away from its best self by the second half. But again, that’s the whole point in a world forever wont to spoiling its best self over and over again.