South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, known for his intelligent, offbeat take on sci-fi thrillers The Host and Snowpiercer, was given free reign and a fat cheque to make Okja, with distributor Netflix keen to be taken seriously in the movie business.
With the help of Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment production company, this tale about a girl trying to rescue her monstrously large pig from an evil mega-corporation secures the talents of Tilda Swinton (who, alongside the director, has long held a candle for the project), Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano and Shirley Henderson. A big portion of the $50m budget is spent animating the eponymous farm animal, which is a wonderful creation, part pig, part hippo, and part Falkor the Luckdragon from The Neverending Story. It moves with a heavy grace, and its interactions with young Korean girl Mija (the excellent Seo-Hyun Ahn) are both plausible and heartwarming.
Like Bong’s previous work, Okja is either an indie movie with blockbuster ambitions, or a blockbuster with indie sensibilities. But there’s a tension at its core that’s never resolved: it’s a children’s film that should never be seen by a child. It’s filled with nostalgia (a stock in trade for Netflix) for 90s children’s movies, with elements of the live action 101 Dalmatians – Tilda Swinton plays a cross between Cruella De Vil and former David Cameron advisor Steve Hilton – and moments of slapstick straight out of Home Alone.
It’s about silly adults ruining things for the kids, but it’s also about the sickening reality of the meat production industry. It’s a film where we get to watch Okja do a poo (and I mean really watch it; the camera getting up close to its giant puckered anus as it twitches before letting off a machine-gun volley of excrement), and also a film where that same pig is brutally tortured and “raped”.
It’s a convoluted jumble, the sort of thing you might have ended up with had Guillermo del Toro directed Jumanji, and it never quite settles into a satisfying rhythm. There are some genuinely heartfelt moments between the young girl and her magnificent beast, but these are overshadowed by a cavalcade of schlocky overacting (crowned by a career low for Gyllenhaal), and a chronic lack of direction.
First published in City A.M.