There's hardly a shortage of anthropomorphized animals in kids' movies. But "Okja," a bonkers new film from the streaming giant Netflix, isn't a kids' movie — though it does feature a little girl as the protagonist. In fact, since it's rife with f-bombs and plenty of violence, it's really a film for adults. I especially loved it because for once, the heroes in "Okja" were my heroes, and the villains were my bad guys. As an environmentalist and animal-lover, there are precious few films that represent my true interests.
"Okja" is about an evil technology company (called Mirando — a barely disguised Monsanto), the people and animals it hurts, and activists coming together to take them down.
The titular Okja "looks like a hippopotamus with human teeth, canine ears, and some of the facial features of Falkor the Luck Dragon," according to the best description I've seen of her online at Ecorazzi. She's an experimental superpig being raised in solitude by a farmer and his granddaughter in the verdant, idyllic mountains of South Korea. Lovingly cared for by Mija (in a fantastic tough-but-tender turn by young actress Ahn Seo-hyun), who has no idea that her giant grey animal friend will soon be shipped off to serve as mascot for a new meat product — and then eaten herself.
Watch the trailer here:
Lest that description lead you to think this is a serious movie, let me disabuse you of that right now. "Okja" is funny, strange, surreal, fast-paced and highly visual — with all of those descriptors turned up to 11 — which is just part of the reason it's a great film. (It got a four-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival). That's thanks to South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, who is known for his highly stylized, kind of chaotic, unique style of filmmaking, as also seen in 2013's "Snowpiercer."
The bad guys are Mirando's over-the-top actor-for-sale (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and the head of the company, a horribly weird and strangely sympathetic Tilda Swinton. In portraying a conflicted, confused and conniving CEO of Mirando, Swinton turns a simple villain character into a real person.
The good guys are the animal-rights group ALF (Animal Liberation Front), a group of rag-tag vegans and nonvegans who work together to bring Okja and Mija home. Again, the characters are both strange and sympathetic, and unlike many a movie hero or heroine, they make plenty of mistakes. I won't say more, except to add that watching this film is one of the most unusual viewing experiences I've had in the last year from the visual storytelling perspective. For that reason alone, I'd recommend it to any cinephile.
The film contains political elements, but director Joon-Ho says "Okja" isn't a political movie. He said in an interview with the Independent, “I don't expect the entire audience to convert to veganism after watching the film. If you consider it, even the protagonist Mija — her favorite food is chicken stew in the film. I don't have a problem with meat consumption itself, but I do want my audience to consider, at least once, where the food on their plate comes from. And, if one is to do that, I believe the level of meat consumption will gradually decline.”
But despite all the visual fun and games and the summer-movie feel to "Okja," it is also a cautionary tale: "In the process of researching the film, I met and interviewed a Ph.D. student who is developing a [genetically modified] pig," said Joon-Ho. "So, Okja is real. It's actually happening. That's why I rushed making "Okja," because the real product is coming.”