The films of Bong Joon Ho often feature a rambunctious energy that threatens to derail them at every turn. That’s the double-edged-sword thrill of his work: Nobody makes movies like he does, and at their weaker moments, you’re grateful for that. His latest may be his most erratic, hurtling between genres, tones and ideas without much concern about how they’ll all fit together.
Okja is an intriguing mess, which you should take as a recommendation and a warning. It’s a kids’ movie that’s best when it’s darkest—in other words, when it least appeals to its presumed target audience. It has exasperating performances from veteran actors, but it can also be quite sobering and exhilarating. And as soon as you think you’ve got a bead on how you feel about the movie, it throws something new at you.
An Seo Hyun plays Mija, a young woman living in the mountains of South Korea with her grandfather (Byun Heebong). Her constant companion is Okja, a giant pig that’s been genetically engineered to help feed the world. (As we’ll learn, Okja is but one of many pigs around the globe bred for this purpose.) Mija is unaware of this fact, however, which makes her shock even keener when an abrasive TV personality (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives to tape a segment on Okja in preparation for her trip to New York. Ostensibly, it’s part of a competition put together by the Mirando Corporation, the company behind the genetic engineering. In reality, the contest is just a way to distract the public from the inevitable private slaughter of these lovable, rotund creatures.
Bong has worked with relatively small budgets and produced impressive sci-fi works such as The Host and Snowpiercer. Okja is his priciest—not to mention the most-expensive South Korean film ever—and the added resources have been brought to bear on a story that requires significant effects. Most significantly, we see the budget in the design and rendering of Okja, which is rather magnificent. Utterly believable, this lumbering, expressive pig has real heft and dimensionality, as opposed to so many CG characters that look weightless in comparison to their human costars. For Okja to work at all, Mija and her pet need to establish a close rapport—especially because Okja doesn’t speak—and the film pulls that off with aplomb.
It’s a pity, then, that the rest of the ensemble isn’t equally faultless. In an extended introduction, Okja establishes that Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) runs the malevolent Mirando Corporation, and the Oscar-winning actress applies her whole bag of gimmicks to the role. Braces, an affected speaking style, an almost alien remove: Lucy is a ham’s idea of a soulless CEO, but Swinton fails to find much humor in the caricature. (Even more regrettable, Swinton will later add on another irksome role, that of Lucy’s chicer twin sister.)
But such grumblings pale in comparison to what we get from Gyllenhaal, who’s insufferably tick-heavy as the maniac TV personality Dr. Johnny Wilcox. From The Running Man to The Hunger Games, it’s not uncommon for dystopian sci-fi to feature a lunatic television host—an easy narrative shorthand for condemning our over-stimulated, increasingly callow times. But such a part requires wit or magnetism, and Gyllenhaal seems unequal to the task. Flopping around trying to convey ego and insecurity run amuck, he embarrasses himself.
Some of the blame also needs to go to Bong and Jon Ronson’s screenplay, which is high on quirk but not always strong on follow-through. (A fine collection of character actors, such as Giancarlo Esposito, end up with not much to do.) Okja wants to stretch the parameters of the family film, giving us a wild twist on a boy-and-his-dog story that deals frankly with animal cruelty and corporate greed. But the audacity is often more appealing than the execution in this action-adventure yarn. There are excellent chase sequences and some heart-tugging moments that are so affecting precisely because death is treated with moral seriousness. (After watching Okja, you may decide vegetarianism is for you.) But there’s also a lot of cutesy self-indulgence in between that you have to choose to forgive—or decide that you just can’t.
Ultimately, though, I’d advise meeting Bong halfway, especially when Paul Dano’s Animal Liberation Front leader Jay enters the picture. The film’s version of a crimefighter, the sharp-dressed Jay wants to rescue Okja and expose the Mirando Corporation, and Dano exudes a soft-spoken decency that’s awfully appealing. But even he takes a backseat to An, who’s enjoyably naive as Mija, venturing out into the big bad world with singular determination to bring her best friend home. That journey will culminate in a heart of darkness with real stakes and a genuine sense of loss, which is why it’s too bad that part of the resolution is difficult to buy. To the end, Okja is as endearing, chaotic and awkward as its title creature. Sometimes, the movie requires the same loving embrace Mija provides for Okja—even though, unlike that portly pig, Okja often lets you down.
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Writers: Bong Joon Ho, Jon Ronson
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik Choi, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
Release Date: Screening in competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.