“It’s all edible. All edible, except the squeal.”
This South Korean film, aiming to address social issues, managed to serve a “hot potato” instead of mass-produced meat. So, do streaming platforms truly respect the world of cinema art or not? The discrepancy between Netflix and the Cannes Festival in 2017 led to the booing of Okja back in the day. However, Bong Joon-ho’s [The Host (2006), Parasite (2019)] adventure drama managed to pull it through and has become a mainstream family treat to date – though kids would not be considered the target audience for this genre-mashed creation. It starts off as a fairy-tale, only to sink into the pits of symbolism, blood and the good old F word.
A young orphan called Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) leads a happy life with her grandfather in the savagely lavish mountains of S. Korea. She runs around cherishing her immense – both in size and intelligence – pig Okja, who is more of a true friend and companion than a pet – much like Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988), in pure CGI. Then one day, Mija and Okja are met with a cruel fate. The massive conglomerate Mirando appears to reclaim its hybrid animal creation, and fulfil its holier-than-thou mission to end world hunger. Okja is taken away and replaced by a piggybank full of coins, but Mija doesn’t think twice before setting out to save her best friend from the slaughterhouse. On her dangerous trip all the way to New York, Mija comes across the dubious CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), a radical animal rights group led by Jay (Paul Dano) and the extravagant TV host Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal).
This is where the fairy tale ends, but what really begins is a story of realistic imagination – a moral count of contemporary animal degradation, corporate greed and unethical activism. Unlike the river monster in The Host, the titular pig/dog/hippo breed in this film is a stark reminder of how GMO food is developed in countries like Canada, where the first genetically engineered salmon entered the market in 2016 despite the environmentalists’ opposition.
The setting promises an intricate story, yet the Korean director opts early on for a more Americanised, Disney-like take (see Snowpiercer, 2013). However, he does so without losing the characteristic dark camera takes that deliver smooth transitions between emotional drama and high speed action. Its finale propels viewers into a dialogue about the future of the planet, under the threat of human greed and its all-consuming power.
Although it is interesting to create an eco-friendly animal film above the mushy standards of the 90’s – like Andre (1994), Free Willy (1993) and Flipper (1996) – the talented cast seems to be purposefully turned into cartoonish characters that can, at times, only be appreciated by young kids. More particularly, Gyllenhall’s role is lost in a frantic, almost deranged performance that does little to remind us of his usually impressive acting skills.
The blending of two languages and cultures, along with the impressive special effects concerning the monstrous super-pig with puppy eyes and elaborate farts, does not save the weak dialogue or the loose script. The music choice for the 2-hour-long film ranges from Balkan sounds to The Mamas and the Papas, which is also somewhat flaky.
The script (co-written by Bong and Jon Ronson) proves adequate for mainstream “food for thought” films, but expectations soon plunge. The plot drowns in simplicity and a call for veganism that almost manages to have the very opposite effect due to its preachy style. Maybe, though, therein lies the core of this otherwise endearing film. With her heart-wrenching cries, talented Mija proves to both radical sides that her motives are based on pure love, friendship and the need for co-existence, rather than self-inflicted righteousness or endless greed.
To finish the film off with a bang, the post-credits scene leads to a YouTube featurette showing the radical ALF (Animal Liberation Front) members’ renewed threat against systemic livestock exploitation.