Bong Joon-Ho teams with Netflix for a saccharine “monster movie.”
One of the fundamental filmmakers of the Korean New Wave, Bong Joon-ho is among a group of filmmakers responsible for the renewed interest in Korean cinema. His expert blend of dark humor and horrifying drama can be seen in such early classics as Barking Dogs Never Bite and Memories of Murder. In 2006 Bong released The Host, his eco-horror film which is considered one of the best monster movies of the new millennium. With The Host, Bong used a sea monster ravaging the streets of Seoul to comment on environmental abuse by the United States military. His first collaboration with Netflix, Okja, sees Bong returning to the themes and subject matter of The Host, this time with a somewhat sunnier approach.
Okja is technically Bong’s second English-language feature, yet most of the first act takes place in rural South Korea. Unlike his previous American-made film Snowpiercer, Okja really does feel like a true Korean film. It often blends Bong’s famously dark and comedic tones with the pure absurdity often associated with Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono (specifically of Love & Peace). One can certainly call Okja a monster movie, yet that assumption is somewhat inaccurate. Yes, there is a giant “super-pig” that tears through a Seoul shopping center, but the real monsters in Okja are the humans.
The film opens in 2007, where a brace-faced Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the CEO of the Mirando Corporation, seeks to re-brand with a new project. Twenty-six “super pigs” will be sent to different homes across the world and in ten years time, the best pig wins. Skip ten years, and we join Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) in the mountains with her beloved Okja. The ten-year-old super pig looks somewhat like the lovechild of a manatee and a hippopotamus. Once the viewer adjusts to Okja’s appearance, there really isn’t anything monstrous about her. She’s kind of like a big puppy: hungry, playful, and eternally loyal. Reenter the Mirando Corporation who sends Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) to throw a sash over Mija’s shoulders and take her beloved friend back to New York City. Enter the Animal Liberation Front, who are part Symbionese Liberation Army, part Reservoir Dogs, to take Okja back.
Okja is a film of vast sensibilities. There’s a fun romp about bumbling eco-terrorists and a love story between friends, but what hits the hardest is the film’s take-down of the meat industry. It is all fun and games for a while, but once the Mirando Company begins their experiments, things get terribly dark fast. As the final act approaches Bong has already charmed his audience. So what better time to start hammering in some ideologies about how terrible we are for eating meat? Scenes in an animal testing facility are particularly disturbing, but it’s when we get to the slaughterhouse that Okja will make you feel particularly awful for ingesting that bacon with breakfast.
Swinton seems to be in complete synchronization with Bong. Okja marks the pair’s second collaboration and first with Swinton serving as producer. The actress’s continued fascination with costume and appearance is fully utilized here, where Swinton plays both malicious a CEO with a Barbie-like smile plastered on her face, as well as her dastardly twin-sister. The rigor with which Swinton approaches each movement allows her to fit perfectly in Bong’s wacky world. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, matches Swinton with a performance that is completely unhinged. His Dr. Wilcox is zany and wears his desperation in every gesture.
In its moments, Okja bombards the audience with socio-political commentary on the meat industry and society’s need to consume. While rarely subtle, this commentary succeeds due to its relevance to the love story at the film’s center. Once again, Bong proves that he is a master of dark comedy, a true environmentalist, and a man with a big heart.