Shades of Studio Ghibli in this ecological fantasy film from Bong Joon-ho that'll make you want to hug the nearest animal to hand and swear an oath on a bible that you won’t touch meat again
Korean director Bong Joon-ho brings us Okja, an ecological fantasy fable concerning a young girl, Mija (Seo-hyeon Ahn), and her beloved pet, a 'super-pig' – a hippo-like creature with spaniel ears and galumphing trot that's been created in a lab. With lush, vibrant visuals and a wicked sense of humour, Okja charms from the off, moving into a well-handled dissection of capitalism, the impact of industrial farming and the risks of GM foods, touching territory previously dealt with by Bong in his dystopian sci-fi Snowpiercer.
Visually and tonally reminiscent of Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro, the story opens in New York. It is here we meet Lucy (Tilda Swinton), the neurotic CEO of Miranda Corp, a company that has recently rebranded itself, leaving behind a mysterious past and moving into ‘super-pig’ creation and research. In a bid to make sure the general public fall in love with these bumbling creatures, Lucy, on the advice of her corporate handler Frank (Giancarlo Esposito), decides to set up a worldwide competition where farmers are gifted a super-pig and asked to raise it for ten years.
Cut to South Korea, where we find Mija living an idyllic existence with her beloved pet, Okja. Together they while away their days fishing and foraging atop the mountain home Mija shares with her grandpa Heebong (Hee-Bong Byun). Unfortunately for Mija and Okja, their ten years are up and the friendly beast has been selected by TV star and naturalist Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal as a screwball Terry Nutkins figure in varying degrees of outlandish shirt) as the most super of the super-pigs, and as a result he must go to New York and be returned to Miranda Corp. As you might guess, the company’s plans for Okja are far from wholesome.
The tonal shifts Bong navigates are impressive. This fantasy story morphs into a gasp-inducing action-adventure before taking another sharp turn to become a dystopian nightmare. The shifts in tone do beg the question: Who is this film for? It's loaded with sweary and hilarious dialogue, and moments of genuine terror, but also the kind of fart-jokes and whimsy you might find in a family movie. Infamously, Okja is to go directly to streaming service Netflix following its Cannes premiere, and perhaps that's this idiosyncratic film's more natural home, where it can be allowed to find its own audience away from the traditional cinema marketing models, while also granting Bong the freedom to craft the tale he wants to tell.
Okja is an incredible vision, both visually beguiling and overflowing with rollercoaster emotions, and makes for a highly appealing and energetic addition to Bong’s body of work. The ecological themes manage to pack a punch too; the sentimental story at the film’s core could turn the hardiest of meat eaters vegan. But Bong does not labour the point, he simply poses the question and is equally happy to poke fun at eco-warriors and corporate powers alike, while always keeping this delightful tale of friendship between a young girl and her pet at the heart of the film.