Review: ‘Okja’ Is Not The Kiddie Film You May Expect

It’s been three years since director Bong Joon-ho’s last film, and “Okja,” his most recent debut which premiered on Netflix on June 28, explores an unexpected new topic: the pitfalls of the meat packing industry. And as Bong films historically go, there is, of course, an underlying satirical message underneath the exciting adventure film premise.

“Okja” is a film about a young girl named Mija, whose grandfather was selected to rear a giant pig hybrid named — you guessed it — Okja. After 10 years together, they become best friends. The two frolic in the lush green hills of rural South Korea. They jump into cool waterfalls and take naps by the water, with Mija’s spot on top of Okja’s round belly.

The happy tale comes to an end when the Mirando corporation, who sent Okja to Mija’s grandfather as a publicity stunt, wants their prized pig back. Okja, along with the other so-called “naturally bred” and “non-GMO” super-pigs, are to be collected and sent to factories where they’ll be turned into delectables (sausages, bacon) and sandwich spread (ham). Heartbroken, Mija sets out to save her best friend from this terrible fate.

It’s understandable why Bong wants to tell this tale. The zeitgeist today is concerned more than ever about what we consume, a heck of a lot more than any of the other previous generations. We’ve come of age in a time where the credo “you are what you eat” weighs heavily on our conscience. Carefully cultivated phrases — non-GMO, gluten free, organic, farm raised — are everyday terms.

Bong explores this phenomenon using the meat trade, opening up a discussion on the ethical and moral standpoint behind its practices. However, despite his ambition, “Okja,” tonally, is lost in translation. What’s largely missing is Bong’s signature cheeky sense of humor that’s found in his South Korean works, which have a knack of embedding cultural inside jokes. “Okja,” taking place in American society, might be a less familiar territory for the director, despite this being his second U.S. and South Korean co-produced film.

It could’ve been the language barrier, as actors Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, both celebrated character actors, played their parts with confusing zeal. Swinton recycles her character from “Snowpiercer,” playing a mad woman in charge. She’s dressed in bright pastel colors, fumbles around as CEO of the Mirando Corporation, and is eventually usurped by her more capable twin sister Nancy (also played by Swinton). Gyllenhaal plays a screechy, famed zoologist, Johnny Wilcox, who is the face of Mirando corporation’s super-pig event. Two pivotal scenes in which the film sheds light on the extremities on the practices of the industry — forced mating and meat sampling — become overshadowed by a drunken, sloppy Wilcox.  

Redeeming moments of “Okja” belong to scenes involving Korean-speaking actors. Standout scenes include those with Steven Yeun, who plays Korean American animal activist K, who unsuccessfully attempts to translate difficult words for Mija from English to Korean, as well as a hilarious F-bomb-ridden interview given by Mirando Corporation’s indifferent, entry-level truck driver Kim (Choi Woo-shik) regarding the company’s mishaps. Those who can speak and understand both languages will likely to have a better grasp of the inside jokes over those watching who only speak one of the two.

Ultimately? “Okja” is a two-hour PSA that concludes to a moot point — there is no clear solution to the problem. Okja is luckily saved, but we are left with a chilling visual regarding the fate of the other super-pigs. They’re rounded up and packed into a giant pen before entering the chamber of death, which hauntingly resemble what we’ve seen of concentration camps. So the takeaway is this: All we can do is accept what’s happening, and in the meantime, enjoy.

I will add: In the days after watching “Okja,” I had all-you-can-eat-BBQ. Twice.