‘What if it were your pet? Would you still eat it then?’ This rallying cry of vegetarians and vegans against meat-eating has always had its heart in the right place, but often fails to make an impact, with food animals always so inherently other when compared with pets. Enter the eponymous star of Okja. Structurally, Okja resembles a pig/hippo hybrid, bred as she is for eventual consumption, but in mannerisms, she’s pure dog. It’s an ingenious, if manipulative, conceit from Bong Joon-Ho and writer Jon Ronson, blurring the line between friend and food in a thought-provoking, but rarely preachy, sci-fi take on the horrors of the meat industry.
Okja is a ‘miracle pig’, a new species designed by evil mega-corp CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) as a way to end world hunger/hugely increase her own bottom line. Raised near Seoul by young girl Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) and her caring grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong), Okja lives a joyous existence frolicking around the Korean mountains with Mija. They’re best friends, and the first act does a wonderful job of illustrating their relationship, with Okja possessing impressively soulful eyes, especially seeing as she’s a purely CG creation. From certain long-distance angles, the effects can falter, but there’s no threat from the uncanny valley.
This emotive expressiveness on Okja’s part and her deeply felt interations with Mija are absolutely vital, and hooks you into the story immediately (especially if you’re a pet owner). Any moment where the pair is put into jeopardy is heartrending, and from the moment Mirando has Okja transported to the States for experimentation anxiety levels are raised consistently sky-high. An animal rights activist group, led by Paul Dano’s J and Steven Yeun’s K, play a key part in the plot machinations of freeing Okja, but Bong and Ronson ensure that the central drama always comes from Mija’s love for her giant pet.
As the above might suggest, Ronson and Bong’s script has a lot of heaviness in it, but it’s also very, very funny, with witty wordplay and absurd sight gags. A few too many poo jokes left me cold, feeling like they belonged in an entirely different film, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s wildly overplayed performance as sinister TV personality Doctor Johnny is a source of both laughs and frustration, but Okja for the most part is one of 2017’s funniest films so far. Thankfully, the tonal swings between broad comedy and intense sadness do settle you in to their rhythm swiftly.
This is helped by Okja’s refusal to enter any sort of polemic territory by having Mija rather than the activists be the story’s centre. Though capitalism and the meat industry are obviously the film’s villains, and the slaughterhouse and laboratory scenes are suitably sickening, the audience is never yelled at for enjoying meat. Mija is motivated by saving her best friend, not changing the world, and she likes chicken and fish stews, with J and K’s organisation presented as heroes, but with a self-important ridiculous streak. One of them even follows the rules of the Level 5 vegan from The Simpsons, basically refusing to eat anything that casts a shadow.
Swinton is having a blast as the villain – and the villain’s twin sister, her second such dual role in just two years – and Dano brings gentle gravitas to an almost action-hero role. As Mija, Ahn makes for a great child hero, always more competent and effective than the adults, even if it’s sometimes by accident, and Byun does brilliant, layered work as her grandfather with a short amount of screen time. Gyllenhaal is less consistent, starting out strongly and keeping his zaniness in check, but descending into pantomime farce too often.
Naturally though, it’s the title character that steals the show. Bong’s direction of the set-pieces is energetic and thrilling, mixing a massive CG creature with practical destruction with great aplomb, making sure that Okja’s experience is as tactile as possible. If this giant pig’s plight fails to move you, you must be made of stone, and even though putting a pet in distress is route one heartstrings-tugging filmmaking, that can’t detract from the power of its execution here. A rompingly fun adventure that will also leave you in tears, Okja is a triumph for Netflix’s still-fledgling original movie production scheme. If we can expect more unique stories like this one, then I’m all for the streaming giant entering the film world wholesale.