In one of our very first posts as a website we declared Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer the Best Films of 2014. My assumption is that it rose to the top of our list that year mostly because it was so much movie. As with a lot of Asian cinema, Snowpiercer never ties itself down to a single genre or tone. It constantly shifts gears from humor to terror to action spectacle to political satire to whatever whim it feels at the moment as its story progresses from one dystopian end of its train setting to the other. It was near-impossible to know what to expect from the director’s follow-up, then, except that it might similarly spread out its eccentricities over a bizarrely wide range of cinematic modes. Okja is just as deliciously over the top, difficult to pin down, and tonally restless as Snowpiercer, although it does not resemble that film in the slightest. If a movie’s main virtues rest in its ability to surprise & delight, Okja is an undeniable success. It’s not something that can be readily understood or absorbed on even a scene to scene basis, but its overall effect is deliriously overwhelming and expectation-subverting enough that it feels nothing short of magnificent as a whole.
Tilda Swinton & Jake Gyllenhaal star as the public faces of an evil meat industry corporation that’s attempting to improve its image with a new, falsely fun & friendly attitude. As part of this evolution within the corporation, they promise to breed a new form of domesticated animal to help maintain the world’s demand for (supposedly) non-GMO meat supply, a “superpig.” The unveiling of this superpig breed is structured as a kind of reality show contest and the movie follows one of 26 worldwide contestants within that frame. Okja, a superpig who has been raised free-range in the forests of South Korea, is officially declared “the best pig” (recalling titles like Babe & Charlotte’s Web), winning the dubious prize of being torn away from the little girl who raised her as a close friend instead of an eventual source for food. Before their separation, we get to know Okja as a kind, selfless animal with human eyes & a hyper-intelligent aptitude for problem-solving (not unlike the intelligence of a real-life pig). After she’s unceremoniously removed from her home and sent to face her fate as meat, we get to know the little girl who raised her as our de facto protagonist. The movie gradually reveals itself to be a coming of age quest to free Okja from her corporate captors, protect her from the well-meaning but idiotic animal rights activists who want to use her as a political pawn, and return her to her home in Nature. The rest is a blissfully messy blur of action set pieces, wild shifts in comedic tone, and a brutally unforgiving satire of modern meat industry practices.
The cuteness of Okja herself and the film’s occasional dedication to a kids’ movie tone (despite its constant violence & f-bombs) make it tempting to look to Babe as an easy animals-deserve-empathy-too comparison point. The truth is, though, that Okja more closely resembles George Miller’s terrifying action movie nightmare Babe 2: Pig in the City, where the grand adventure staged to bring its very special superpig home is a nonstop assault of bizarre imagery & comedic terror. There’s a constant threat of danger in Okja, ranging from car chases to meat grinders to stampedes through an underground shopping mall. The CGI in service of this spectacle is shoddy, but in a flippant, Steve Chow kind of way that is so irreverently cartoonish it could not matter less. Oddly, the performances work in much the same way. Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson all stand out as intensely bizarre sources of nervous energy that exist far beyond the bounds of human nature, but in such a casually absurd way that it somehow fits the film’s ever-shifting tone. Gyllenhaal likely wins the grand prize in that respect, often resembling more of a rabid duck than an adult man. In any other context he’d be too broad or, frankly, too annoying to function as anything other than a distraction, but it’s somehow just the jarringly over the top touch the movie needs.
Okja is too much of an ever-shifting set of complexly self-contradictory tones & moods for it to be wholly described to the uninitiated. It’s both a scathing satire of modern meat industry & a slapstick farce poking fun at the activists who attempt to dismantle it. It’ll stab you in the heart with onscreen displays of animal cruelty, but will just as often giggle at the production of farts & turds. I can try to describe the film as an action adventure version of Death to Smoochy or a more deliberately adult reimagining of Pig in the City, but neither comparison fully covers every weird impulse that distracts & delights Bong Joon-ho as he chases his narrative across multiple continents. Just like with the similarly divisive Snowpiercer, I can’t promise all audiences will be onboard for the entire ride (Gyllenhaal in particular is sure to be a frequent point of contention), but Okja does offer something that’s increasingly rare in modern action adventures of this blockbuster-sized scale: the wildly unpredictable. You may not appreciate every individual turn in its impossibly twisty road, but oh, the places you’ll go.