A story of friendship set in the backdrop of the genetically modified food production industry, Okja is another massive achievement for director Bong Joon-ho.
Meshing together creature-feature elements of The Host with the capitalist critique of Snowpiercer, Okja concerns the activities of the Mirando Corporation - a multinational company attempting to make serious progress with the global food crisis by experimenting with and breeding a race of 'Superpigs' (think your standard size pig mixed with that of a hippopotamus). The newly minted CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), taking over from her father, announces during the film's prologue that Mirando is hosting a contest to engineer the best pig, with various test subjects spread across the world to develop over time, with a winner announced in 10 years time. This is where we are introduced to protagonist Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), a 14 year old girl living in the South Korean countryside with her grandfather and 'Okja', one of the Superpigs which is selected as the winner of their contest. Mija does not want to see her best friend be turned into food product, and in her pursuits to reclaim Okja, comes into the crosshairs of both Mirando and a rebel organization known as the Animal Liberation Front.
Much like his other ensemble-driven works, there is an amazing cast on display here, each receiving ample dimension and moments to shine. Tilda Swinton doubles down on the wackiness as the stubborn, braces-equipped Lucy Mirando, as well as her sinister twin sister Nancy; having worked with Bong in the past on Snowpiercer as an equally menacing figure, she goes all in and the film is much better for it. Just as wacky is Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a washed up TV zoologist with an overzealous personality. Gyllenhaal doesn't receive a whole lot of screen time but when he is on screen, the energy levels of the diegesis skyrocket. Paul Dano portrays Jay, the sincere leader of the ALF who partners with Mija after she unexpectedly crosses paths with them on a mission - a charming eco-activist with aims to bring down Mirando and help free Okja, he is nothing but reliably great.
Okja retains the sensibilities of past Bong Joon-ho works, and thankfully neither of these aspects are diluted for a mainstream audience. With Netflix behind distribution and production, it's a major step forward for their film division, and having such a title available in various foreign territories simultaneously should increase the director's clout abroad - something that would not have been as feasible with a traditional theatrical release. Even with a cavalcade of major talent, its a transnational product through-and-through, with nearly half of its runtime taking place in South Korea. Comparisons have been made to the blockbuster work of Steven Spielberg, and there are certain similarities, however there are some harrowing, disturbing moments that do not make it suitable for families or younger audiences. In fact, it's more than likely to change some viewers dietary habits from meat to vegetarian/vegan.
The film manages to not only traverse territory, but genre as well - outside of its science fiction-esque conventions the story dips its toes in action, comedy, tragedy, and some very nuanced (but almost impossible to miss) political subtext. If there's any major shortcoming or criticism to be found in Okja, it's in how the script (co-written by Bong and Jon Ronson) attempts to do so many things while not quite sticking the landing by the end. It's nice to see such ambition on display, and thankfully things never cease to be entertaining, though occasionally such tonal shifts grind things to a halt, with the end result feel like three or four different narratives in one.
For the sheer heights to which it goes, Okja warrants a recommendation. It's jam-packed with so many messages, and has something for everyone - no two viewers will have the same reaction by the time the credits roll. A monster of a tale with equally large universal themes, it is truly unlike any other film you're likely to see this year.