The latest high profile Netflix feature, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is lumbering, clumsy but ultimately as loveable as its eponymous star: it’s Babe on steroids. And it’s possible that as with George Miller’s classic many a future vegetarian will trace their decision back to this movie.
The Monsanto-sounding Mirando Corporation led by Tilda Swinton’s sharply pencilled Lucy have hit on a solution for the world’s hunger problems: a super pig born in Chile and her offspring will fulfil all the world’s bacon needs. Her corporate presentation promises a ten year competition during which farmers from all around the world will rear their super pigs before revealed the most beautiful in New York. Cut to ten years later and one of the litter Okja is now the Totoro-like companion to little Mija (An Seo Hyun). They collect persimmon fruit, swim in mountain pools and even sleep together, while grandpa feeds the chickens.
Their time is almost up and when Dr. Johnny Wilcox – a Jake Gyllenhaal performance that strains to be Sacha Baron Cohen – shows up to film a segment of his show Magic Animals, it is also clear that they are there to take Okja to Seoul and then to New York. Mija sets out in pursuit of her pig to the big city. Things are complicated further by a comic team of non-violent anarchists from the Animal Liberation Front led by Jay (Paul Dano) intent on using Okja to expose the meat industry and free him. Of course, their non-violence doesn’t preclude a whole bunch of havoc including a stunning pig chase through the Seoul shopping mall as the crowd flee, taking selfies as they go.
Co-scripted by Jon Ronson – whose work also includes much humour at the expense of such self-serious quasi-fanatical groups as the ALF – his influence is also evident in some of the great dialogue. Complaining of her sister and rival Nancy, Lucy complains of her environmental record during her tenure, polluting a lake so badly it exploded: “The only lake to explode, ever. Well done, Nancy!” As the action moves to New York, the madcap tone is darkened by flashes of violence, whether it’s the Black Chalk private security firm or the fate of the animals themselves.
As with Snowpiercer, Bong loads his fable with a radical critique of present day capitalism and the brutality and indifference that sustains it. As much fun as we have with our ALF heroes and their extremism, it is obvious whose side we are supposed to be on, even as they face an overwhelmingly powerful system. Hope can be found in the friendship between Okja and Mija, channelling other inter-species bonds as seen in ET and Maurice Sidak’s Where the Wild Things Are. This sentiment as we progress might seem insufficient but it is always we have.
Okja is exuberant and wild filmmaking and although there is occasional sloppiness – why have f-bombs in a film that should be appealing to a young audience? The toilet humour might be too broad for some, but the heart is in the right place. But even if it doesn’t convince you that meat is murder, it’ll put you off hot dogs for a few weeks.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty