About halfway through Okja, there’s a scene where the senior staff of the Mirando Corporation are watching in silent horror as a young Korean girl named Mija is being forcibly carried away from her beloved super pig named Okja. The seating positions and even the outfits of the Mirando executives are a direct homage to the infamous 2011 photo of President Obama with his staff as they watched the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound from the White House Situation Room. It’s the most humorous and bizarre moment in this humorous and bizarre movie, one that is wildly inventive, imaginative and heartfelt, but one that loses our attention when its prized pig isn’t on screen.
Okja follows the story of Mija and her pet Okja, a massive, genetically-engineered pig that she has been caring for for several years. Director Bong Joon-ho establishes very early on just how strong the connection is between Mija and the animal, playing with Okja in a forest, helping feed and bathe the creature and even assisting Okja when its doing its bathroom business. You know its true love when you’re not grossed out but actually encourage your pet to fling massive feces in all directions.
But Okja was given to Mija by the Mirando Corporation and now they’ve come back to retrieve their prized, mutated mudslinger. Mija is heartbroken but determined to get Okja back and travels to Seoul in hopes of retrieving her. Along the way, she crosses the paths with the Animal Liberation Front, a group of left-leaning activists who are determined to liberate Okja from the tyranny of domesticated hot dog-eating and shish-kabob-loving meat handlers and consumers.
Everyone has an end game and an end motive in Okja: Mirando wants to make money off of the meaty carcasses of its super pigs, the Animal Liberation Front wants to coerce Okja into getting abused to further their own ends, Mirando’s CEO, played with trademark eccentricity by Tilda Swinton, is being slyly deceived by her close advisor (played with quiet confidence by Giancarlo Esposito) and even Mija’s uncle is encouraging her to use the fame as the beloved pig girl for some much-needed money. The only pure connection is between Mija and Okja, a simple love that extends beyond language and species, just a small girl who deeply adores her big pet and doesn’t want anyone or anything to change that.
It’s a heartwarming message, one that is portrayed with vibrance and energy through the first half of the film. The sequence where Mija sprints through Mirando’s office in Seoul to retrieve Okja before being stopped by the A.L.F. is the most electric and enjoyable scene in the entire movie. It jolts us with hope and energy that what we’re watching here might be something truly special, that this may be Bong Joon-ho best work yet.
Sadly, Okja dips after this point. The quirky characters lose their luster, the noble aims of the A.L.F. lose our support, the torture and mistreatment of Okja becomes redundant, and Mija’s angst at everyone who has used and betrayed her just doesn’t hit home anymore. It’s a strange devolution from this high level of storytelling quality we saw in the film no more than 15 or 20 minutes ago, and it’s not because Joon-ho’s direction becoming lazy or unmotivated. Really, it’s because the biggest sense of joy and wonder we got from this movie was when Mija was playing with Okja, just a girl in perfect sync with her pet, a palpable chemistry between a young actress and a massive CGI-pig that feels more real than any other domesticated animal we’ve met on screen.
This is the true accomplishment of the movie, being able to evoke an unmistakable, potent emotion from us through actress Seo-Hyun Ahn and her foibles with her non-existent, animal co-star. It’s a feat that only directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and now, Joon-ho can pull off, introducing us to puppets, animatronics and CGI-crafted animals that are far from real, but through expertly-choreographed direction and the power of simple, pathos-driven storytelling, can make us care about them anyway. Now that’s true movie magic.