The titular animal of Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is so endearing that she even defecates cutely, depositing little fecal pellets into a stream in a fashion that somehow connotes synchronicity with nature. This fictional creature—a giant, genetically engineered pig created to provide a cheap corporate super-food—is a major achievement on the part of Bong and his collaborators, suggesting a balletic hippopotamus with the ears and personality of a Labrador retriever. Like many otherworldly martyrs in metaphorical genre films, Okja is a gentle giant, and the contrast between her bigness, potential ferocity, vulnerability, and eagerness to be loved by humans is unforgettably poignant.
For a while, Okja is lucky, as she has a person who honors that love: the almost adolescent Korean farm girl Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun). Okja’s first half is the most surpassingly lovely passage in Bong’s career, abounding in the casual magic that one associates with a Miyazaki or an early Spielberg film. Okja is first seen emerging from the trees, which Bong stages with a lack of ceremony that connotes deep respect; he doesn’t give her a forbidding, portentous movie-monster entrance. Instead, Okja lumbers into the frame, joining Mija in the wilderness where the girl lives with her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong), who believes that it’s time for Mija to outgrow her childhood pet. Okja and Mija play and when Mija tumbles off a cliff, Okja devises a clever way of swinging to her rescue, taking the tumble in Mija’s place. Going to bed, Mija sleeps against Okja, draping the creature’s ear over her body like a blanket.
These moments, which Bong stages with lucid rapture, serve a clear purpose: We don’t want them to end, as we know the filmmaker’s softening us for the kill. One is never simply allowed to enjoy the companionship between children and their magical friends in these sorts of fantasies, as their relationship must be imperiled in the service of making a point about the inherent corruption of human society. A prologue, set in 2007, provides a hint as to where this film is headed. In New York City, Lucy (Tilda Swinton), the head of the Mirando Corporation, announces to the press that a new pig has been discovered that will lead a revolution in solving world hunger. For P.R. reasons that make no sense even by the irrational standards of satire, several of these pigs are dispersed to farmers across the world for a contest. After 10 years, the biggest pig will be celebrated and its farmer rewarded. Guess which pig is the biggest, and who’s heading toward a corporatized guillotine?
The Mirando Corporation takes Okja out of the Korean wilderness and into New York City, stuffing her into an undersized truck that suggests the notoriously awful way of cramping calves in small cages so as to tenderize them for veal cutlets. At around the halfway point, Okja’s tone dramatically changes, shifting from a children’s fantasy into a broad and startlingly cruel parody. Imagine if E.T. were kidnapped, taken to a slaughterhouse, raped, and generally worked over for much of that film’s second act, and you’ve got an idea of Okja’s sense of emotional discombobulation.
This cruelty isn’t without purpose, as Bong betrays our trust in the service of showing how we betray animals, torturing and mass slaughtering them for the sake of the food that we gobble up without question. Okja is given the personality of a dog because they command most audience’s sympathies, though anyone who’s spent time with pigs can speak of their intelligence, warmth, and potentiality for kinship with humans, which might be unknown by people who aren’t tasked with interacting with the creatures they eat.
Bong, though, can’t leave well enough alone. The awfulness of Okja’s violation, and the operatic horror of the climactic images of a slaughterhouse that’s killing thousands of these pigs, speak for themselves, but Bong often stops the second half of the film in its tracks for sophomoric caricature that’s below his talents. Lucy is another of Swinton’s gratingly mannered freak-show creations, in which two-thirds of the acting is seemingly accomplished through the costume changes. And Jake Gyllenhaal, not one for subtlety lately anyway, indulges in the most ridiculous showboating of his career, playing an animal-rights charlatan who suggests a blend of Steve Irwin and Geraldo Rivera’s respective modes of zealousness. (As a right-hand-man with understated reservoirs of power, Giancarlo Esposito hits notes of pragmatic amorality that speak much louder than Swinton and Gyllenhaal’s mugging.)
These performances serve an inadvertent purpose, allowing us to feel superior to the corporations that we lambast in talk and enable in reality, diluting our complicity in Okja’s suffering—just as many of us, suppressors ourselves, were allowed to feel comfortably, distantly superior to the Haves of Bong’s overrated Snowpiercer. The poetry of Okja and of Ahn’s wonderful performance are lost, until a stirring conclusion, in frenetic clutter as Swinton and Gyllenhaal chew the scenery against the clinging and clanging of well-staged yet repetitive action set pieces. Bong is a significant artist, but his ongoing preoccupation with banally foregrounded and Terry Gilliam-esque cartoonish-ness is inexplicable. In Okja, a transporting protest fantasy becomes another shrill dust-up in the waging of the culture wars.