As Okja will eventually remind you, sausage does not come from any single part of the pig, but is made from a bunch of spare parts all blended together and stuffed up its own intestine. Unfortunately, Okja feels somewhat similar, cobbled together from many disparate ideas all squished together inside a single two-hour movie.
The eponymous Ojka is one of a dozen Superpigs, 12-foot long, 4 ton porcine products created by the Mirando Corporation and sent around the world to be raised by different country’s farmers as part of a ten-year publicity stunt to revolutionize the food industry. Okja was sent to South Korea, where she was raised by 14-year old Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather. But when the ten years are over, Mirando CEO Lucy Mirando (Taylor Swinton) and their company zoologist Dr. Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal) come to collect their product, which begins a chase that will take Mija from the mountains of South Korea to New York City in an effort to get her friend back. Luckily, she has some help from the Animal Liberation Front (ALF for short), led by Jay (Paul Dano), who want to expose and stop Mirando’s abusive treatment of animals.
With a plot like that, and the dumb-cute giant animal Okja front and center, it’s tempting to try and label the movie a Spielbergian kid’s movie a-la ET: The Extraterrestrial, but – and this isn’t me just clutching my pearls – but there is way too much cursing, not to mention animal cruelty and gore for that label to be entirely appropriate. The broadness of Swinton and Gyllenhaal’s acting – playing caricatures of an American businesswoman and a gay-stereotype television host, respectively – read as comedy; but that doesn’t quite gel with, again, the scenes of animal cruelty – especially in the third act – and then an arguably tragic ending. Also in contrast to their broadness is Seo-huyn’s goal-oriented stoicism and, surprisingly, Dano – who plays an understated – if still eccentric – eco-terrorist.
Morally, the movie seems to pull in many directions at once, implying mature nuance, but in actuality just coming off as trying to have its cake and eat it, too. By nature of being a big-business and kidnapping Okja, the Mirando Corporation are the ostensible villains of the movie; but we have no reason to doubt that the superpigs would go a long way towards solving problems like world hunger and the carbon impact of raising cattle. On the other side of things, the ALF’s instance that they aren’t terrorists only highlights the incredible damage they do on all their missions. And the way that the movie’s ending jumps immediately from cattle concentration-camp to a genre-typical idyllic happy ending due to a simple capitalist exchange, intentionally or not, reeks of “fuck you, got mine.”
It also hurts that Okja’s ostensible moral about the cruelties of meat-eating never completely line up with those Spielbergian emotional sensibilities. And by that, what I really mean is that there’s really no reason for Okja to be a superpig. In movies like ET or the last year’s Pete’s Dragon, the companions are magical because they represent something abstract, usually involving the adversities felt during the transition out of childhood. Okja is just…a big pig. Mija doesn’t really go through a character arc of her own, and Mirando want’s Okja for the same reason that any slaughterhouse wants any pig. And once the movie does get to the depictions of animal cruelty inflicted on cattle animals, they’re just scaled up versions of what happens to regular pigs that have less impact because of Okja’s fictional nature compared to actual adorable little piggy-wiggies.
Okja’s size is really only utilized during the movie’s action beats, where it is used to great effect, but not really enough to justify the 80% of the movie that isn’t a chase sequence. An early cliff-hanging sequence does an amazing job of introducing Mija and Okja’s bond, while also showing how powerful Okja is, but this is never really built on. Further chase scenes, such as one though an underground market in Seoul, are kenetic and imaginative, but don’t contain that important emotional elements. For all Okja does, she could have easily just been a wrecking ball with googly-eyes and a speaker for fart-noises.
If you’re familiar with writer/director Bong Joon-ho’s previous work, like The Host or Snowpiercer, then you’ll notice a trend in him making movies with clear moral/social messages that take the form of exaggerated, almost expressionistic, hypotheticals. Condensing capitalist hierarchies to a train where the poor are ghetto’d to the back despite making the entire engine go – simple, but effective.
It feels like he almost didn’t go big enough with Okja. As an animal rights PSA, it’s less effective than actual footage taken from inside a slaughterhouse, while as a piece of fiction, it’s too grounded to ever reach the expected emotional highs of other movies in its genre. You wouldn’t want to eat a hotdog right after seeing Okja, but you’d get the same feeling from hanging out in a 7/11 for a little over two minutes.