Tilda Swinton plays twins in Okja, a funny-vicious-dazzling coked-up kiddie movie from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho — not the first time she’s done double duty, but definitely the most allegory-laden. She takes on the dual role of Lucy and Nancy Mirando, heirs to a multinational agrochemical conglomerate in the midst of some serious image rehab, and a study in light and dark.
Lucy is the sibling in the spotlight throughout most of the movie, having been appointed to head the family-owned company as it attempts to rebrand itself as virtuous, organic, and kind. Grinning around a mouthful of braces, she gives off a carefully curated impression of youthfulness and pastels, a CEO-as-cheerleader insisting big business really can benefit the planet, that the Mirando Corporation cares.
In the past, Mirando didn’t bother with the friendly facade. Nancy — who casts a forbidding shadow over the proceedings long before she actually appears — is a gravel-voiced, helmet-bobbed figure who was cut out of the Mirando leadership position and replaced by her sister/rival. She had followed too closely in the footsteps of the pair’s father, a man known for committing the occasional corporate atrocity.
Per the rules of twins laid out by The Simpsons and therefore scientifically impeachable, it would seem that Lucy is the good one and that Nancy is the evil one. But to accept that split means getting scammed by the shell game Mirando is playing, because underneath the bright makeover, it’s all the same sort of ruthless, market-sanctioned greed. There’s no good twin, just a less honest one who’s willing to smile and pretend the “natural” new food source she’s touting wasn’t developed in a lab. The end goal is still and has always been to turn the world into consumers, or into products.
And “product” is the unfortunate category into which the title character of Okja falls. She’s a “super pig,” a new type of ecologically sound meat animal and “revolution in the livestock industry” that Mirando is pinning its future on, one that looks sort of like a hippo crossed with a hog, or maybe just a scaled-up skinny pig. For a creature the size of a compact car, Okja is thunderingly lovable and, given what’s planned for her, tragically intelligent. She’s grown up in Edenic bliss in the care of 13-year-old Mija (the excellent Ahn Seo-Hyun) and her grandfather Heebong (Byun Hee-bong) on their mountain farm in South Korea.
What Mija doesn’t know about the oversize pet she spends her days frolicking outdoors with is that Okja is part of a pilot program in which super pigs were dropped off at farms around the world to be hand raised and later retrieved. Okja isn’t theirs — she’s the property of a company intent on taking her back for dissection, study, and marketing.
For Mirando’s inner circle of executives (Giancarlo Esposito and Shirley Henderson among them), the more indifferent employees down the line, and celebrity vet spokesperson Johnny Wilcox (weak spot Jake Gyllenhaal), Okja is both PR fodder and future sandwich filling. And if it seems callous to turn a creature into both adorable mascot and efficient source of jerky, well, maybe Big Meat requires a callousness the movie dares you to be capable of yourself: The manic adventure makes its way from South Korea to New York City and, eventually, to the nightmarish confines of a commercial slaughterhouse where super pigs get processed, going from expressive computer-generated animals to hanging carcasses to steaks.
Despite the effective and unsensationalized awfulness of that sequence, Okja isn't intended to be a fiery broadside against all meat-eating, though shooting it turned its filmmaker into a temporary vegan. Mija and Heebong make fish stew and treat themselves to one of the chickens they raise. And not even the members of the animal liberation group Mija crosses paths with on her journey to retrieve Okja, led by the beneficent Jay (Paul Dano), can come to a consensus as to the most ethical way to conduct themselves. One of their crew keeps fainting from having eaten too little out of a desire to minimize his carbon footprint.
Existence, Okja allows, is basically a series of moral compromises, but mass consumption is something else. It involves compromise on a scale that’s terrifying, most of it unfolding out of sight and therefore out of mind, shrouded in comforting but frequently meaningless buzzwords like “values” and “natural.”
Framed around the experiences of the fiercely un-precious Mija, who becomes a half-grown action hero, Okja unfolds like a fable about a child and their nonhuman pal that’s been warped into something bleak and outrageous — E.T. by way of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Mija pursues Okja with scowling conviction through foot chases, car chases, and paw chases that send the characters crashing thrillingly through a city mall. She even makes her way across the ocean to the US for a showdown with the sisters Mirando.
But while it approaches its corporations-can’t-be-trusted themes from the perspective of an adolescent, Okja’s overall vision of the world as unable to pull itself out of a capitalist death spiral doesn’t feel simplistic. There are idealists intent on saving the planet in Okja, but Mija isn’t one of them. She just wants to help the ones she loves, and the more she sees of the expanse outside of the farm on which she grew up, the more it seems like she’d be lucky even to manage that.
A caustic horror comedy of sorts about the global economy, Okja doesn’t end on a perfectly rosy note. But as an act of global cinema itself, it’s more hopeful — an example of how border-crossing moviemaking can mean so much more than the personality-free, created-by-committee feel of so many recent would-be blockbusters. Okja, like Bong’s last film, Snowpiercer, has a multinational cast (also including Devon Bostick, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall, and Steven Yeun), is half in English and half in Korean, and circles the Earth in the process of telling its story.
The film, which was written by Jon Ronson and which has taken a controversial, pioneering route from Cannes directly to Netflix, doesn’t feel compromised by these choices, but electrified by them — it may be nationless, but it’s personal and singular and weird, unmistakably a Bong Joon-ho creation.
It is, in its own way, a kind of monster movie, about a creature Frankensteined together for our kitchens courtesy of genetic experimentation. Which makes it a Lucy-and-Nancy-worthy mismatched twin in its own right to The Host, Bong’s 2006 breakout about a creature born from chemical dumping on a US military base that lumbers out of the Han River to terrorize Seoul’s sunbathers.
In the equally eccentric-cynical The Host, it’s the monster, rather than the hungry public, intent on doing the eating, but like Okja, the film is about a mutant who’s created by mankind, only to be hunted and hounded by it. And in both, it’s the faceless power structures people create and submit to that are the real villains, whether it’s indifferent governments or amoral megacorps.
Bong is making movies on a larger scale than ever, but he’s kept his focus on individuals trying not to get ground up in the gears of a greater system (or, in Snowpiercer, in literal gears). In the mordantly convincing vision of an increasingly cold-blooded world he puts onscreen in Okja, that feels like it’s all anyone can hope for — that goes for humans and monsters both.
Alison Willmore is a film critic for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Alison Willmore at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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