Beastly BFFs: Okja’s Uneven Parable of Friendship
Director/Screenwriter: Bong Joon-Ho
Cast: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yuen, Lily Collins
June 28, 2017
Bong Joon-Ho brings his bold style to Okja, creating a fun romp that’s a mashup of a children’s fable and an anti-corporate farming manifesto, mixed in with a slight edge of surrealism. The tale is simple: a corporation creates a race of super pigs and, as a marketing ploy, send out 26 of them to be raised by farmers across the globe. Okja, the titular superpig, has grown up in the mountains of South Korea, being raised by Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong). We meet this trio ten years after the pigs have been sent out—Okja is now a huge, hippo-like creature who is fiercely devoted to his human, and Mija shares the sentiment, trying to convince her grandfather to pay the Mirando Corporation to let her keep Okja rather than letting her be sent back to America.
Of course, her grandfather cannot buy back the beast, and Mirando Corporation comes to claim their top superpig. They send Johnny Wilcox, fading star of the show Magical Animals (Jake Gyllenhall, doing the absolute most)—but Mija resolves to follow them to Seoul and free her friend. That’s where she meets up with the Animal Liberation Front, headed by an appealingly mysterious Paul Dano. What follows grows more and more absurd, and Bong carefully toes the line between outright condemning meat eaters and wryly winking at how over the top, if sympathetic, the Animal Liberation Front is. We’re supposed to sympathize with Mija and Okja because they have an intense and emotional connection, but everyone around them leans toward the absurd.
Okja herself is pretty stunning, with excellent CGI animation and sound design. Her grunting and whining makes Okja both familiar and utterly strange; something that could exist but doesn’t quite yet. But the movie is careful not to anthropomorphize any of the other superpigs shown until the very end, somewhat softening any underlying message about animal welfare or rights. So, in some ways Okja plays very safe, like a magical realism story about why corporate greed is bad. But as the film moves away from the magic of Okja’s and Mija’s friendship and into the plottier segments, it loses its focus. There’s a definite lag in the pacing and story once it swings into its third act, and the tone gets darker as well. In fact, there’s one scene where the tone gets too dark, especially in comparison to the rest of the film.
CW: rape, animal violence
Okja ends up back in the hands of the Mirando Corporation, and under the care of Wilcox, who immediately brings in a snarling male superpig to “forcibly breed” Okja. The ALF are secretly watching from a hidden camera, and while the scene isn’t gruesome, it is definitely graphic enough to make Okja’s pain very real and tangible. It’s a shocking addition of gendered violence that is jarring and out of sync with the rest of the film; while other scenes are edgy, especially for a movie about a child’s animal friend, this interrupts. The footage is eventually used by ALF to pull off their rescue, but any type of shown or implied animal cruelty could have sufficed; rape is thrown in perhaps because Okja is an animal, and one that can’t speak a human language. But the whole film relies on buying into the concept of Okja as a friend, not just a meat animal—which makes this whole scene extra awful and tonedeaf. Even a fantasy creature can’t escape her rape being used to teach men a lesson.
The movie crashes into its conclusion from there, and the resulting resolution is clever and appropriately, a little dark. While it never quite lives up to the themes presented in the first half of the film, Okja is satisfying on its own as a strange little parable about a girl and her superpig, and how stubbornness can win out in the end. Ahn Seo-hyun’s square jawed determination and tender interactions with Okja really ground the story in something real and tangible, keeping it from becoming too whimsical or outrageous.
Despite the numerous f-bombs, Okja generally feels thematically appropriate for kids—it deals with some darker topics and is a little edgy, but I know I would have liked it growing up. It’s a movie that doesn’t talk down to its young protagonist and thus feels like it could be that rare, truly all-ages film. Unfortunately, I would be hesitant to recommend it to younger audiences because of the aforementioned scene, which overall does the rest of the film a huge disservice.