[BS Note: This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix]
Returning to Korea after his first English language film, director Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) has made his second creature feature. In 2006, he put his own spin on the monster movie with The Host and here he brings a unique narrative about a special pet. A multinational food corporation with a bad history, Murando, led by their strange CEO Lucy (Tilda Swinton; Doctor Strange), has created a new breed of superpig – larger, less environmentally demanding, and tasty. In a rebranding effort, Lucy announces that 26 pigs will be sent out to be raised locally by farmers around the world with a plan to hold a “Best Superpig” contest and launch their new food products 10 years later. Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) is the teenage girl who has raised her superpig, Okja, in South Korea until it is taken away by Murando. Unwilling to say goodbye to her pet, Mija travels to America to bring Okja back home.
The success of the film relies entirely on its depiction of Okja. The hippo-like animal is rendered with a startling amount of personality and intelligence. She cuddles with Mija as she sleeps and is able to problem solve when needed. She is less like Mija’s pet than her partner in crime as she helps her fish, climb, and even risks herself to make sure Mija is safe. Most computer-generated effects suffer from unrealistic physics. They feel weightless and removed from the physical world. Okja doesn’t have this problem. She trots and leaps with a heft fitting of a creature her size. This attention to detail in her animation makes her feel believable as she interactions with the objects and people around her.
There are some unexpected additions to Bong’s direction. He shoots the film with a much more frenetic style than usual. The camera bounces and shakes as it chases its subjects, even employing snap zooms as needed. This progression towards a more mainstream style of shooting action started with his previous film, Snowpiercer, but is much more prevalent here. The end result is somewhat mixed. While it does add a sense of chaos to the story, especially when Okja is involved, it can be unnecessarily distracting. It makes the otherwise well-staged action harder to follow which detracts from its overall impact.
Few filmmakers working today can juggle multiple conflicting tones like Bong can. While the overall silliness of the film prevents it from ever becoming too heavy, he still has to balance animal cruelty, extremism, corporate machinations, and animal-human relationships, each with its own tone. Fortunately, he is able to quickly change the mood as needed. Thrilling chase scenes end in toilet humor and what could be a tense hostage situation with animal rights extremists is punctuated by their incompetence. The one constant in the changing moods is Mija’s relationship with Okja. Mija’s unbreakable will to save Okja and her refusal to give up are heartwarming. Their affection serves as the emotional core of the film. While situations can often stretch believability, their friendship is a pleasant anchoring point. There could be a greater theme read into about the morality of animal farming and meat consumption, but Bong keeps his emphasis on Mija and Okja. Their credible relationship and Bong’s skilled tonal maneuverings make Okja a sweet story of the bond between a girl and best friend. Slighter than his typical work, but enjoyable nonetheless.