Bong Joon Ho‘s final film before receiving international acclaim with Parasite, Okja is a moving and horrifying tale of the bond between a girl and her pet “super-pig”. Created in a lab as part of a secret genetic experiment by the shady Mirando Corporation, the pigs are sent to various locations to establish which environments are most conducive to their growth for 10 years, whereupon they will be reclaimed by the company.
Okja is raised in an idyllic mountain village by a Korean farmer (Byun Hee Bong) and his granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo Hyeon) who forms an unshakeable bond with the super-pig. When Okja is retrieved by Mirando representatives led by flamboyant TV “animal lover” Dr Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a frenetic blend of Jim Carrey and Michael Jeter) Mija vows to bring her home, travelling to America to rescue her friend.
Where the film is most successful is in the depiction of the bond that exists between Mija and Okja. The hippo/rabbit/pig design of Okja is adorable, and the CGI work is incredibly effective, in no small part due to the way Okja interacts with Mija and her surroundings. It gives the super-pig a physical presence, a weight and solidity that makes her feel tangibly real. Crucial to this is Ahn Seo Hyun‘s performance who is so natural in these scenes that at times you forget that Okja is a CG creation. The intimate shared moments between the two are beautifully realised, especially Mija’s habit of whispering into Okja’s ear.
In many way Okja can be viewed as a companion piece to Bong’s monster film The Host. Both confront societal issues through the use of a big CGI creature (one terrifying, the other adorable). The Host is a cautionary tale about the perils of pollution, while Okja is a damning indictment of the meat industry.
The final rescue mission in the industrial-scale slaughterhouse is almost unbearable to watch, and while the ending thankfully shies away from being too nasty, it remains a hollow victory. The plaintive howl of the captive super-pigs is truly heartbreaking, as is the sight of the two parents trying to save their baby, and meekly walking along the fence to say goodbye. It’s a bleak conclusion but the only way the film could realistically end, and the brief post-credits scene suggests there’s at least a glimmer of hope.
It’s a curious mixture tonally, and a lot of this comes from the international cast who play their characters incredibly broadly, which can be a little off-putting. Exceptions to this are Paul Dano and Steven Yeun as animal rights activists, both of whom give warm, nuanced performances. Shirley Henderson’s superficial PR girl might be the most detestable character, which says a lot considering the film also includes Tilda Swinton in a dual role as two different kinds of awful as the rival sisters fighting for control of Mirando. She’s great as usual, but the time spent with her is less interesting than the central relationship and it too often feels unnecessary.
The film still retains Bong’s subversive, anti-authoritarian streak (aided by Jon Ronson’s script contributions) and his wry, playful sense of humour is evident in several chaotic set-pieces, even in the subtitling (one joke exclusively for Korean speakers plays on the idea of translating subtitles for English speakers).
Okja is a bit messy in all honesty, with broad characterisation, and a subplot that takes time away from the emotional heart of the film, but the high points are very high indeed. Ahn Seo Hyun is simply incredible, and at the very least the slaughterhouse scenes will make you think very carefully about eating meat again.
This director-approved release from Criterion is packed with special features. Alongside in-depth features regarding the design of Okja, this also includes extras that feel closer to the director’s heart, including a featurette about his directing style with Ahn Seo Hyun and a 2022 interview with his regular collaborator Byun Hee Bong that also serves as a heartfelt tribute to the actor, who is currently battling pancreatic cancer. Other features include interviews with cinematographer Darius Khondji and producer Doo Ho Choi, and more.