It’s full of beauty and adventure and the requisite poop jokes for a kid’s movie, but that third act is rough going.
With this week’s big release being the inevitable Despicable Me 3, Okja represents what is likely to become a growing alternative to such blockbusters. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Joon-ho Bong and starring an award-winning cast, Okja is bypassing most cinemas and debuting instead on Netflix. It’s a smart move by the streaming media giant, one that is sure to appeal to those movie fans who no longer find a trip to the cinema enjoyable (or affordable). That being said, Minion-weary parents might still want to wait a moment before plopping their kids in front of Okja and pressing Play.
Why? Two words: Watership Down. Those of a certain age will undoubtedly remember the experience of being shuttled down to the local multiplex to catch the animated adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel when it was released in 1978. It seemed a harmless enough choice for a Saturday kiddie matinee, what with its commercials full of cute cartoon rabbits looking for a new place to live. By the time the credits rolled, however, and the screen was littered with the corpses of mangled, bloody bunnies, traumatized viewers everywhere probably wished they had received a little bit of warning up front about what they were in for.
With that memory in mind, let us be among the first to caution you about Okja. Yes, it’s a heartwarming tale about a young South Korean girl and her adorable super-pig. Yes, it’s full of beauty and adventure and the requisite number of poop jokes for a kid’s movie. But it also has a third act that will absolutely leave shaken anyone who doesn’t know where their meat comes from.
Let’s start at the beginning, though, where CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) explains how her company has discovered a new species of super-pig (something resembling a cross between a hippo and a dog) that may eventually solve the world’s food crisis. The Mirando Corporation places a number of these creatures in the care of local farmers around the globe who will spend ten years raising them to adulthood. One of these animals is Okja.
On the farm, Okja lives an idyllic existence with the young Mija (An Seo Hyun). The pair frolic in the forest and take dips in mountainside streams, all the while developing a loving, protective bond with one another. Unfortunately, ten years eventually pass, and the Mirando Corporation shows up wanting their pig.
Heartbroken, Mija trails Okja to Seoul, where she is joined in her rescue efforts by a fanatical group of animal rights activists led by the enigmatic Jay (Paul Dano). Rather than free Okja, however, Jay’s people instead equip the super-pig with a camera so they can spy on the interior workings of Mirando’s processing plant. And that’s where things start to get ugly and decidedly kid-unfriendly.
Under the watchful eye of Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a TV veterinarian whose fame is in decline, Okja is submitted to breeding attempts (not shown, but which are aurally implied to be analogous to rape) and painful meat sampling procedures. Later, when Mija shows up to once again try to free her friend, the only way out is through the processing plant, where no gruesome detail is spared.
For vegans, animal rights activists, or those who simply don’t like to think about where their bacon comes from, the last half hour of Okja will be pure nightmare fuel. Even those meat lovers who are okay with the bloodletting behind their breakfast might flinch once or twice at the slaughter techniques on display. That’s not to say Okja is entirely anti-meat. Mija and her grandfather are shown scarfing down fish and free-range chicken without so much as a single tear shed. But the movie is definitely down on factory farming techniques, with a liberal dose of anti-GMO politics thrown in for good measure. Since the Church has no official stance on such matters beyond demanding the general humane treatment of animals, it will be up to the personal politics of viewers as to whether such subject matter is a deal killer or not.
Either way, such polemics come and go in the film, rarely staying front and center. As most Korean films, the tone in Okja shifts wildly from family fun to action adventure to horror. Even the acting is all over the place, from the intense sincerity of its heroes to the cartoonish excesses of its villains. Gyllenhaal, in particular, gives one of the weirdest performances this year so far. All in all, though, if you can handle the movie’s political viewpoint and some of the horrors on display, Okja is an ultimately enjoyable film, as well made as just about anything on the big screen. If you plan to watch with your kids though, don’t say you haven’t been warned.