From the very first moment that Lucy Mirando (the incomparable chameleon that is Tilda Swinton) started down the stairs of the building that her grandfather had owned in her 6 inch pumps, bleach blonde bob, hot pink lipstick, and for an added quirk –– braces you knew that “Okja” was going to be good.
The film is directed by Bong Joon-ho, an illustrious South Korean film writer and director. His most well-known American film is the internationally cast science-fiction drama “Snowpiercer” (2013). That was an amazing and stirring film that showed the darker side of human nature in an unlikely story, “Okja” is no exception. And similarly to his previous films, he has an amazing cast lineup. I knew before watching the film that Tilda Swinton (who played a fabulous, terrifying villain in “Snowpiercer” ) was once again a a main character. I also knew that Jake Gyllenhaal, also known for his kooky and off the wall characters was featured as well. A nice surprise for me was Paul Dano, Lily Collins, and of “The Walking Dead” fame and grief Steven Yeun. A wonderful find is the supremely talented actress Ahn Seo-hyun who plays the main protagonist Mija.
“Okja” as mentioned begins in New York but soon the story moves forward 10 after Lucy Mirando announces the super pig project that will save the entire livestock crisis facing a growing population of 7 billion. The film transition to present day (albeit in this particular world Bong Joon-ho has created from his impressive imagination) in South Korea. There we get the first glimpse of the super pig Okja and her constant companion, Mija. We get a taste of the idyllic life they lead in the mountians and a sense of their friendship. Then Mirando appears in the form of Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal at his most odd-ball role since “Donnie Darko” or “Nightcrawler”) the spokesman and animal expert. He declares Okja the winner of the super pig competition and informs Mija and her farmer grandfather that they are taking her to New York. Mikja does not at first understand the gravity of this situation, but once she does she runs off on a daring rescure of Okja. During this rescue attempt, she comes in contact with the extremely non-violent, apologetic group American Liberation Front who want to show the reality of Mirando and their animal brutality with a camera they attached to Okja. Meanwhile in New York Lucy Mirando and her supposed confidant played by Giancarlo Esposito of “Breaking Bad” infamy plot to turn the PR nightmare of Okja and Mija running through the city into a staged, heartwarming reunion in New York. Mija is given the royal treatment. Okja however, as we see through ALF’s camera is put in a bleak gray cage with her fellow super pig brothers and sisters beside her in a darker version of “Babe.” What happens next is a series of inhumane acts against Okja that are unsettling to say the least. There is another rescue plan in place and ALF is determined to get Okja back with Mija in their mountains soon. “Okja” ends on a bitter melancholy because although Mija is successful in saving her friend, they leave a slaughterhouse filled with future victims of corporate greed. It is a realistic end, as Okja, Mija and the piglet they saved live their simple life in the mountains once more as the pale pink credits start to roll.
Throughout “Okja” the intense moral issue of food consumption and mass produced food it put to the test. Clearly the “Okja” team feel very strongly about this issue, the entire movie at times can feel like a massive guilt trip for all meat consumers everywhere. The political/ social issues of the film stand out, but stronger than that is the importance of connection to the people and animals around you in life. That sentiment is shown movingly in the private moments when Mija whispers in Okja’s ear at the beginning and then end of the movie. Okja has gone through unspeakable horror at the hands of humans and almost seems to not recognize the gentle touch of Mija. But when Mija lifts her head to Okja to reassure her, that same deep understanding and recognition is sparked in her expressive eyes. Similarly an unspoken understanding or at least on the audience cannot audibly hear is shown from Okja to Mija at the end as she lifts her head to Mija as if to say something. That spark of love is the purest and most emotive aspect of this wonderful, whimsical film that explores the importance of love in the face of human’s darker nature. That is the beauty and power of “Okja.”