Review: Netflix hit Okja is bizarre, ambitious and compelling

Okja

By Catherine Pearson

You probably never thought you’d go mad for a film about a pig the size of an elephant. Well, get ready to surprise yourself with new Netflix film Okja.

Bong Joon Ho directs this new Netflix hit, a film that follows the story of a genetically modified ‘super pig’ named Okja who has been sent to live with young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) in the Korean mountains. When the CEO of the Mirando Corporation, the slightly psychotic Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), takes the family company from her sister Nancy, she wants to make a difference. She tells the fascinated New York crowds that she has 26 super cute super piglets that she is going to send to farmers around the globe, who will rear them and ultimately send them back for the chop to tackle global hunger.

There’s definitely something she’s not letting on, but who are we to question the CEO of a big multinational? Okja is one of the famous 26 piglets who Lucy Mirando has entered into the worldwide ‘best pig’ competition, and by the time we meet him he is the size of an elephant and Mija’s best friend, living an idyllic life at her rural home. That is, until Mirando’s posse arrive at their home in the mountains to give Mija and her grandfather Heebong their winning sashes and drag the new prize pig back to New York for press and pork, in that order.

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There’s no two ways around it, this film is totally batshit bonkers. That said, I defy you to resist going along for the ride. It’s a compelling watch, not only because of the touching friendship between 14-year-old Mija and her CGI pal but because it is uproariously funny. Yoon Je-moon is hilarious as Mundo Park, a Mirando employee whose role once involved checking up on Okja’s progress but soon becomes fighting to keep an erratic truck driver under control and keep a massive pig in the back of an HGV. “This is what company loyalty looks like!” he screams, as he runs dishevelled after a pig on the loose.

Okja cleverly hits on some huge issues in the course of its narrative. During a fast-paced, caper-style romp through the streets of Seoul, we are introduced to the anti-terrorist but still pretty militant Animal Liberation Front, or ALF, who throw petals out of their truck window to attract the attention of Okja’s captors and even throw marbles in the direction of the police who are hot on their heels.

Headed up by the passionate Jay (Paul Dano), the ALF’s methods are humorously anti-violent, and a lot of fun, but they carry with them a very powerful message that will really hit home in the film’s final moments. The group fight for animal rights and campaign to put an end to the brutal meat industry and, even though these super pigs are the stuff of fiction, the upsetting treatment of these GM creatures makes a very clear statement regarding the real world conditions in slaughterhouses worldwide.

At times, the film also appears to be making a comment on police brutality, as during a very pink parade down the streets of New York that can best be described as Piggy Pride, the meat lovers are under careful watch and the secret ALF members are swiftly and ruthlessly dealt with as they attempt to protest the Mirando machine and free Okja from its control.

Tilda Swinton is brilliant as the flamboyant and twitchy CEO whose dreams of transforming the Mirando agro-chemical plant into a “miracle pig rearing company” are going down the pan. To call her character manic would be an understatement; she is a full-blown corporate psychopath, likely moulded on co-writer Jon Ronson’s extensive experience in this field as author of the bestselling The Psychopath Test. Her interaction with her team of confidantes is priceless as we see her slowly unravel whilst she practises her own signature like a 12-year-old school girl. Tilda has made a habit of playing her own arch nemesis sister of late – see the hilarious Coen brothers film Hail, Caesar! – and she does so again here with her signature, and fittingly bonkers, flair.

Jake Gyllenhaal steals every one of his scenes as the emotionally unstable Johnny Wilcox, a zoologist and the face of Mirando’s super pig campaign. Sporting the most impressive moustache since Brokeback Mountain, he frolics about the screen in jazzy shirts and shorts complete with knee-high socks giving off what can only be described as a mad professor vibe. He is utterly hilarious but, being played by the acting powerhouse that is Gyllenhaal, he cannot help but display his depressive tendencies when out of the limelight. It’s worth the watch for this performance alone, frankly. Perhaps even just the moment when crazy Johnny is oscillating on top of a giant pole on the Mirando stage. Priceless.

You won’t really know what has hit you once you have seen Okja, but it’ll be something good. Whether it’s the film’s stunning cinematography and special effects, its humour, its poignant message about the abuse of helpless creatures or the headache that kicks in every time you experience one of Gyllenhaal’s outfits… it’s totally worth it.

Okja is out now on Netflix

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