by Hope Madden
That lovely period of youth, close enough to childhood to be magical, near enough to adulthood to be tinged with longing – it’s that moment where people like Spielberg made their greatest mark.
Filmmaker Joon-ho Bong takes us there with the story of a super pig – a genetically engineered and yet utterly adorable hippo-like beastie bred to feed a lot of people cheaply – and her best friend.
If you haven’t seen the films of Joon-ho Bong, you should. All of them. Repeatedly.
This versatile Korean filmmaker is as comfortable with dystopian fantasy as he is creature features, with dark family dramas as police procedurals. Whatever he makes, he edges it curiously with humor and shadows with a bit of horror. It’s a heady mix, but in Bong’s hands, it never ceases to satisfy.
In this case, we tag along as Korean farm girl Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) wiles away days in the rural mountains with Okja. Ten years earlier, the Mirando corporation left the tiny piglet with Mija’s farmer grandfather. It’s now time for the company to take her back.
What opens as a beautiful story of magical childhood friendship a la E.T. or some kind of live-action Miyazaki film turns, in Act 2, into something far darker. Once Tilda Swinton (glorious – and playing twins!) and Mirando Corp come calling, Okja becomes satire of the most broad and brutal sort.
Though Bong peppers the prolog with a couple F-bombs, there’s still no way to be ready for the pivot his film makes. Not every actor is prepared for the shift, either.
Swinton – so breathtakingly brilliant in Bong’s 2013 flick Snowpiercer (Be a shoe!) – is characteristically fascinating as Mirando’s mogul, and Paul Dano offers a startlingly unpredictable eco-terrorist.
The generally reliable Jake Gyllenhaal can’t seem to nail his part, kind of a Jack Hannah patterned after a crackhead version of Richard Simmons. It’s less interesting than it sounds.
Otherwise, though, the collision of styles and gut punch of a third act guarantee that the film will stick with you.
Okja is the first film in which Bong clearly states a prescribed purpose, rather than simply writing and directing a fine, if politically astute, film. That doesn’t take away from his movie’s power, and only cements his position as a filmmaker at the top of his game.