Okja is an incredibly weird and eccentric film, and I mean that in the best of ways. It tells the story of a young girl named Mija and her tireless quest to save her best friend, a bio-engineered ‘super pig’ called Okja. This relationship is the absolute heart of the film, and it thrives on the strength of it, largely thanks to the endearing and entirely believable performance by Seo-Hyun Ahn as Mija. You completely buy her love for Okja, and you empathise with her at every stage of her incredible journey.
The purity and beauty of the love between Mija and Okja is contrasted with the brutality and greed of the Mirando Corporation, which is fronted by platinum-blonde CEO Lucy Mirando (a deranged Tilda Swinton). With a crew of arch-capitalist villains featuring vile wildlife presenter Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, delivering an insane but successfully frightening performance) and the vapid but efficient Jennifer (Shirley Henderson, using her delightfully strange voice to full effect), the Mirando Corporation takes Okja from the mountain idyll where she grew up alongside Mija to the ‘Best Super Pig Competition’ in New York. Aided by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which is fronted by Paul Dano’s affable Jay, Mija must get her friend back.
This film is many things, and it is perhaps most impressive on account of the skill which which is balances and integrates its disparate elements into a (mostly) cohesive whole. It is an animal rights movie, a family film about the friendship between a young girl and an adorable animal, and a damning indictment of insatiable capitalist greed. If I had to pick a strand of the film that I found to be most successful, it would be the critique of capitalism – the opening scene where Lucy Mirando, all girlish smiles and giggles, explains the Super Pig project is a masterpiece of satire, perfectly punctuated by the final line: “Most importantly, they need to taste fucking good.”
While it is very much a message movie, Okja never felt preachy – the ALF, the group that should be the white knights of the story, are shown to be flawed and corrupt, deceiving each other and manipulating outsiders to achieve their own ends. The only true hero here is Mija herself, and her heroism is defined with beautiful clarity through her refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer. There is no true happy ending here, but the ending does illustrate the achievement of a small-scale, intimate sort of peace. It feels painful yet honest in its reluctant acceptance of Mija’s limitations. She’s a hero, but that doesn’t mean she can achieve the impossible and single-handedly bring down the capitalist machinery that treats life as a commodity to be processed and squeezed into vacuum-sealed packaging.
It’s not a perfect film – some scenes are overly long, a few characters feel extraneous to requirements, and the wildly different tones occasionally clash – but it’s an excellent one. It’s heavier than you might think from all the cutesy shots of Mija and Okja romping through the woods in the trailer, but it’s still superb fun and you will find yourself thinking about it long after the credits roll. Netflix should be commended for funding something so defiantly strange and original.