Satire, not drama, has been the primary way to provoke change and discussion in the 21st Century. So if you want to get a huge population to think twice about where their food comes from and maybe even think about going vegan, don’t show them a depressing torture reel; show them a farce. To paraphrase of Tilda Swinton in the opening scenes of “Okja,” Bong Joon Ho’s film isn’t just monstrous, disturbing, eye opening and surreal. “Most importantly, it needs to taste fucking good!”
“Okja” scathingly critiques the food industry and the perils of a corporate culture that exploits food consumption. But it does so in the guise of an outrageous, cartoonish thrill ride full of hyper kinetic action and colorful social satire. The premise is absurdly fascinating, the characters are extreme caricatures, and the film moves at a blistering pace.
“Okja” opens with Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) introducing her new plan for the Mirando Corporation, speaking in an elaborate press conference about how she’ll change the company from the ways of her father. “We all know he was a terrible man,” she says with a giddy laugh. Lucy’s pale complexion and dress sense makes her look like she’s never been in the sun before. She has horrible bangs and gaudy braces, and Swinton delivers every line of corporate PR speak with a glint in her eye that’s all parody, but with a forceful conviction that the people in this world take her seriously.
Her plan is to have farmers around the world each raise one genetically modified super pig for 10 years. It’s a charitable act of love and culture with an aim to end world hunger, but she doesn’t hide for a second even to the press that this is all about the profit.
Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) has raised her piglet Okja since they were both babies. The CGI-creation Okja looks like a rough draft of what “My Neighbor Totoro” would look like if they ever made a live action film. It’s a large gray pig the size of two hippos with the droopy ears of an elephant and the sad eyes of a dog. And in the forest around their house, she and Okja have learned a special kinship that allows them to live and frolic among nature. She’ll be lying on his back and he’ll roll over without knocking her off.
Joon Ho engineers turbulent POVs from Okja’s eyes, the camera moving playfully as Okja bounds forward, in one scene managing to rescue Mija from the side of a cliff by throwing himself off and propelling her upwards like a pulley.
It’d be enough to watch a whole movie of just Okja and Mija navigating the wild. But coming to claim Okja is the face of the Mirando Corporation, the world-renowned animal lover Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s a snively, two-faced Steve Irwin if there ever was one. Gyllenhaal speaks in a falsetto and drops his voice down an octave when Johnny’s put on camera. He flails about like a wild man and struts with his arms at his sides like an animal in his own right. You watch him in the background and he’ll suddenly be sitting atop a pillar pelvic thrusting. You have to wonder what the hell is going on and whether this is either the best performance of Gyllenhaal’s career or the worst, or maybe both.
Mija then travels to the city in an attempt to rescue Okja before she’s taken to America, trotted around as a show pig and eventually sent to the slaughterhouse. She teams up with a group of animal activists led by Paul Dano to rescue Okja, and Joon Ho’s satire isn’t limited to just the corporate nut jobs. They’re eco-terrorists who throw flowers instead of use actual weapons. And one member is so against the idea of food production that it looks like he’s never eaten at all.
Joon Ho’s last film “Snowpiercer,” also primarily in the English language, combined the monstrous fringes of society within economic classes to tell a loony, violent satire about the apocalypse. And despite its unbearably bleak ending, Joon Ho teased just a bit of hope. “Okja” ends similarly with an image of the gross, monstrous treatment of animals in how we get our meat that it looks like the end of humanity. And yet he leaves a heart-rending twinge that characterizes how the whole movie plays.
“Okja” moves from zany to devastating in an instant because everything about the movie is extreme. Joon Ho just has to flip the tone of the movie to make it feel joyous or sickening. But the film’s coda reminds that this is a movie made to be entertaining and not without a bit of heart. You might at times be sick to your stomach, but it’s a meal fit for a king.