Okja: Original Children Fable, With Black Humor, Message and Edge

Boldly original, Okja, the new film from the talented South Korean writer-director Bong Joon Ho, is not just an ambitious, politically conscious film with a social message, but a charming, well-crafted fable about the incomparable love of a young girl for her special “Super Pig,” whose name provides the film’s title.

OKJA – Trailer

Working with a larger budget than the usual, and defined by some dazzling state of the art special effects, Okja is the most eccentric film to date (Day 4) in competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Fest.

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The film arrives with some baggage, having been financed by Netflix, the streaming giant, and having created a debate within the French film industry about its inclusion in a prestigious festival. Earlier this week, jury president Almodovar and jury member, US star Will Smith, clashed over Netflix as a growing presence in film festivals.  (The director and his actors have defended Netflx in the official press conference)

But in this essay, I would like to dwell on the merits of this personal film, which is a successful hybrid of a thrilling adventure (with some amazing chases), a tale of children love for animals and strange creatures (not unlike Spielberg’s E.T. or Babe, two cherished, Oscar-winning pictures, or Pete’s Dragon), and a ferocious satire of our greedy corporate culture.

Director Bong is nothing if not versatile filmmaker—he is an artist in complete control of his technical facilities, hopping comfortably from one genre to another (among his films are The Host, Mother). Okja announces his first English-speaking film, and his attempt to broaden his fan base—so far limited to the festival and arthouse crowd–with a large scale operation, cast with some of the hottest actors working today: Tilda Swinton (who was also in his film, Snowpiecer), Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano.

It is one of the film’s gigs that the “miracle pig” at the center of the tale is one of hippopotamus-size, yet marked with the kind of “human” attributes, intelligence, sensitivity and vulnerability, that will make any boy or girl wanting it as best friend.

Like other children’s fables, including Disney’s animation and live-actions, the heroine is a resourceful and energetic girl named Mija (splendidly played by An Seo Hyun), whose both parents had died and now lives in the countryside with her grandfather.

The casting itself deserves a whole essay on its own right. You will see the usually handsome Gyllenhaal as a potbellied, strangely voiced TV host, Paul Dano as the leader of a guerilla animal rights group, and perhaps most impressively, Tilda Swinton in double role, playing a pair of ferociously competitive and ruthlessly antagonistic twins.

In the first section Swinton plays “good” sister Lucy, wearing a Channel outfit and speaking through noticeable braces as she announces a brilliantly novel marketing stunt for the Mirando Corporation, an agrochemical company that now specializes in genetic engineering of a breed of Chilean pig. The plan is to distribute 26 piglets in 26 different locations and see which one grows to be the biggest—and tastiest.  The goal is to have a contest and parade in Gotham.

Mirando employees insist that super-pig meat is “delicious,” inevitably making us viewers wonder where their meat comes from.

Lucy and her dubious professional ethics is contrasted with the young and naïve Mija, who lives “at one with nature,” feeding her huge pet with real fruit, swimming with it, taking a nap on its belly. The two are devoted to each other and inseparable.  There is a great scene in which Mija risks her life to save the giant beast (CG makes him look like a pig-dog)

Their idyllic life in Nature is disrupted by the news that Okja is destined—rather doomed–to become Super Pork.  The information is conveyed by Dr. Johnny (Gyllenhall in khaki shorts and squeaky voice), who arrives to take Mija to New York City. The girl would do anything to recover Okja and bring her back home. Unfazed, she sets off, grabbing some cash and equipped with her gold dowry, which she intends—and later does—to use to buy back her pet.

Dano’s Jay and his masked Animal Liberation Front (ALF) are engaged in some violent attacks, even though they later apologize, claiming that they had never meant to hurt anyone.

Swinton’s two characters finally meet, but Bong being an unpredictable storyteller, doesn’t depict the expected clash, instead showing Nancy lighting Lucy’s cigarette, in what could be homage to classic smoking scenes in Hollywood cinema.

The contrast between the naïve but joyful Nature and the hustle and bustle threatening milieu of the Big City is one of the film’s motifs. Okja is meant to be an enchanting children’s tale and yet it is defined by adult sensibility, not to mention the use of the F-word by Gyllenhaal. (How will Netflix deal with the censors, if the film is going to be shown on the big screen, as it should)

Several scenes are upsetting, such as the one in which Okja is introduced to her sexually aggressive “boyfriend,” resulting in breeding. And arguably the movie’s most powerful and unsettling scene depicts Mija visiting an industrial slaughterhouse, populated by thousands of super pigs awaiting tragic destiny.

To be sure, Bong has always been a flamboyant filmmaker, going for the extreme (remember the scary The Host) and utilizing black humor. Every element is deliberately exaggerated—notice Swinton’s blond hairdos and wardrobe, especially one pinker than pink outfit.  But in this picture, we see another side of him—a satirical humanist making a socially conscious film with a simple yet compelling liberal message.

The film is in English and Korean, but the most captivating sequences are silent, relying on striking sounds and visuals. The images are spectacular, shot in ultra-bright widescreen by the brilliant lenser, Darius Khondji.

The film changes tones—from the charming to the scary to the upsetting, but the best thing I can say about Okja is that it cannot be compared to any other film, and as such it deserves attention—and my admiration.

A Netflix Original Film release, Okja was made by Plan B Entertainment, headed by the Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, who claim not one but two recent Oscar winning films: 12 Years a Slave and this year’s Moonlight.


Running time: 118 Minutes

Nextflix chief is credited as producer and Tilda Swinton as co-producer (among others)