Once you go big, it’s hard not to try to go bigger and bigger. But there’s such a thing as too big. Just as one can breed a super pig to be ridden through town, one can make a film so outlandish that eventually nothing about it will stick. Bong Joon-Ho, who heightened reality to its breaking point in Snowpiercer, comes back at us with Okja, a movie about super pigs that look absolutely nothing like pigs, featuring actors who behave nothing like humans.
Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, Doctor Strange), president of the Mirando Corporation, wants to solve world hunger and fix her company’s warmongering reputation by breeding naturally occurring super pigs. Ten years after the launch of her program, the super pigs are ready to be eaten, and one of the test subjects, Okja, is to be crowned Best Super Pig. But Okja’s owner, Mija (An Seo Hyun), does not want to part with her friend. The Animal Liberation Front, overseen by Jay (Paul Dano, Swiss Army Man), wants to arm Okja with a camera to expose the Mirando Corporation’s corruption. Each side collides with and against each other, with Okja the focus of all the world.
Okja’s start is promising: Swinton gleefully tosses out over-the-top proclamations about her formerly evil corporation’s plans to make the world a better place. The energy is high, everything seems faintly ridiculous, and New York is rendered in a fashion that seems neither authentically Korean or American. This heightened and artificial atmosphere is promising, but from here the film’s ceiling gets progressively lower and the artificiality never stops expanding.
Okja then shifts to asking the audience if they can believe in Okja as a creature. The problem is that Okja is incredibly ugly. Super pigs, supposedly based on manatees, look like nothing more than unconvincing hippopotamuses. The CG is not up to the level that it needs to be to sustain a beast on screen as long as Okja is; she’s not just slimy, she’s rubbery. Hyun plays off her well enough, but most of the time that involves massaging Okja’s hindquarters to make her excrete on command. This childish idyll suggests a movie that is nowhere present thereafter, and just makes the tone more and more bizarre.
Jake Gyllenhaal (Life) shows up as a wildlife expert and “the face of the Mirando Corporation”, and one could be forgiven for thinking that he was manufactured in a lab. He puts on a funny voice and prances across the screen, committing himself to a vocality and physicality completely at odds with humanity. Gyllenhaal is counterposed by Dano, whose ALF team is so strangely written that it’s nearly impossible to tell if Bong and cowriter Jon Ronson (Frank) actually believe in animal rights or think they’re laughable. High-profile actors like Giancarlo Esposito (TV’s Better Call Saul) and Shirley Henderson (T2 Trainspotting) are essentially set dressing.
Okja lurches from one unlikely set piece to the next, but it is intermittently amusing. The problem is that whenever Bong tries to go for drama, he does it in a grotesque and heavy-handed fashion. Super pigs are bred to be eaten, so it is inevitable that the film finds its way to a factory. If the animals being prepared there were recognisable as real beasts, it would have been more effective; if there’s truth to the factory, which looks Dickensian at best, it is completely undermined by its fantastical elements. It could drive a viewer to vegetarianism, but first they would have to have care for the plight of a super pig; if you don’t care, Okja is implicitly judging you. By that time, the viewer has had to digest too much information across too many tones, and they can’t be blamed for exhaustion.
Okja is the sort of movie that you could do with basically any animal that can be eaten for food; you could even do it with an invisible dragon that a couple of quack hucksters want to harvest for medicine. Director Bong takes early promise and doubles down on it in every way: he makes it bigger, more vulgar, and wrings increasingly outlandish performances from his cast. That it was supposed to be this way does not make for a satisfactory film. In the end, Okja herself is as ugly as the movie that she stars in.
Okja is available on Netflix.
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho.
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Ahn Seo-hyun, Shirley Henderson, Giancarlo Esposito and Jake Gyllenhaal.