The film begins in 2007 with a wealthy CEO (Tilda Swinton) addressing the media to reveal a new project for her corporation. Having genetically engineered a new super-pig the 'Super Pig Project' is launched, which will see 26 of the new creatures sent to farms all across the world, where they will be raised and monitored over the course of 10-years. The hopes are for the program to create a new food source and help address the pending global food shortage.
We are introduced to Okja - a friendly super-pig - 10-years later on a farm in a remote mountain region of South Korea, where she lives her life roaming the countryside freely with her teenage friend Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). Their friendship is a tight bond and when the corporation's people come knocking the reality of the program sinks in. Okja is taken away and shipped back to America to be made an example of. Mija runs away, following Okja's trail and finds herself caught up in an adventure that sees her jet-setting the world and being mixed up with a notorious Animal welfare organisation called ALF (Animal Liberation Front). What ensues is a strange and wonderful adventure that is as equally exhilarating as it is moving.
Korean director Bong Joon-ho is a visceral filmmaker whose most notable films have been THE HOST (2006) and SNOWPEIRCER (2013), and despite OKJA being a peculiar direction for him to explore, it is nevertheless another stunning demonstration of his visual and technical prowess. Never one to rest on his laurels OKJA is one of the year's most delightful, yet challenging films, and one that will be sure to confront many unsuspecting viewers.
At first I was irritated by the use of profanity throughout the film, feeling that it was unnecessary and crass for such an enchanting story. But as the plot unfolded it became apparent that Joon-ho was (likely) forewarning parents that this is NOT a family-friendly adventure, but rather a dark and twisted story of morality and ethics. OKJA delves into some truly sinister themes, making it a deliberately provocative and uncomfortable experience in the guise of a kids flick.
Generally I am not a fan of politically motivated films either, which push agenda on people, and so there is a part of me that resisted OKJA. I am familiar with the message being pushed and I spent the second half of the film wishing that it were a morally ambiguous adventure. Nevertheless I was so swept up by the creativity and quirkiness of the film that I was able to suppress my cynicism. I was mesmerised by the unconventional concept and overwhelmed by its imagery, and there were moments that reminded me what it was like to first discover the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (DELICATESSEN, AMELIE). It was this constant state of being displeased and delighted that ultimately had me singing OKJA's praises! The themes that I found to be tedious are, in turn, what lends the film its edge. I wanted to shake Joon-ho's hand as he twisted a warm and delightful tale into a dark and disturbing nightmare. It's definitely not one for the kids, but certainly an adventure for the young at heart.
The ensemble cast is fantastic with an even balance of Korean and American actors making it a multicultural experience. The film alternates between the two languages, thus adding yet another texture to it's already multilayered structure. The Korean cast includes Ahn Seo-hyun in the lead role (she is an unassuming actress with a maturity far beyond her 13-years of age), Byun Hee-bong, Yoon Je-moon and Choi Woo-sik. To be honest I don't know any of these people, although most of them have worked with director Joon-ho previously. The American's (well, Westerners) include Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano and Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from Breaking Bad)... oh and Australian Daniel Henshall (SNOWTOWN) also plays a substantial part. Needless to say that the cast is impressive, with Swinton, Dano and Gyllenhaal fully embracing the outrageousness of it all. Gyllenhaal's eccentric Animal zoologist character is a particular stand-out and might just be one of the most absurd figures to grace the screen this year... he channels Hunter S Thompson and Geraldo Riviera to hilarious effect. And of course there's Okja herself; a brilliantly realised creation through the use of seamless CGI.
A lot can be said about Netflix – good and bad – but one thing is certain... they are creating some remarkable original content. First they changed the face of documentary storytelling by exploring long-format and turning it into must-see television, and now they're committing themselves to unconventional fiction. I salute their tenaciousness and hope that OKJA is just one of many more to come.