Cannes Film Review: ‘Okja’

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

A young girl is devastated to discover that her beloved 'super pig' was little more than a publicity stunt for the genetically modified food industry in this heavy-handed parable.

Most people think the problem with genetically modified food is that consumers don’t know what they’re eating, but if you ask Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host”), the real trouble is that some of these lab-engineered animals might actually make perfectly fine pets — because what kid wouldn’t want to have a hippopotamus-sized miracle pig as a new best friend? Downright charming at times and irrepressibly gonzo at others, “Okja” hews to an all-too-familiar trajectory — the kind seen in countless children’s movies — as a bunch of mean meat-eaters attempt to separate a girl named Mija (An Seo-hyun) from her precious “super pig.”

A century from now, the citizens of the future will look back and judge the current era for our eating habits. Oddly enough, even though many in the filmmaking community have strong feelings about respecting animals’ rights not to become dinner, the cause seldom finds its way on screen, which is perhaps the thing that sets “Okja” apart from, say, Paramount’s “Monster Trucks” — well, that and a potbellied Jake Gyllenhaal playing an in-your-face TV host; a guerrilla animal-rights group led by Paul Dano; and a double-dose of Tilda Swinton as a pair of ruthlessly competitive twins.

Of these two Swinton characters, we meet good sister Lucy first, outfitted in Chanel and lisping through braces as she announces the publicity stunt that could save Monsanto — er, “Mirando Corporation,” an agrochemical company that manufactured nerve gas during the war, but has since cleaned up its act, sort of. Mirando now specializes in genetic engineering, having tweaked a breed of Chilean pig until it grows the size of a safari animal. Lucy’s plan is to distribute “thwenty-sith miracle pigleths” to different farmers around the world and see which one grows up to be the biggest, fattest and tastiest.

Fast forward a decade to somewhere far from Mirando HQ, where Mija lives in a state of total naïveté, spending her days at Okja’s side. These are charming scenes, reminiscent of “Pete’s Dragon” (as she tosses real fruit to the animated creature) and “My Neighbor Totoro” (right down to the way Mija naps on the giant beast’s belly), featuring great visual effects work on the creature, designed to look adorably dog-like. Early on, Bong encourages us not only to fall in love with Okja, but also to recognize the animal’s unusual sensitivity and intelligence, inserting a manipulative scene of animal altruism in which Okja risks her life to save her owner (when, more likely, both would have ended up dead).

Ah, those were the days — before Mija realized her super pig was destined to become super pork. Like the unsuspecting turkey that enjoys a spoiled life being fattened only to get a rude awakening the day before Thanksgiving, neither Mija nor her enormous pet has any idea what’s in store for Okja — which makes the young girl all the more devastated when Dr. Johnny (Gyllenhaal, sweaty and screechy in a performance that’s three times as weird as it needs to be) shows up to meet Okja and bring her back to New York City. Naturally, Mija wants to recover Okja, and so she sets off, armed with her solid-gold dowry, to beg, steal or buy back the big pig.

If all of this sounds like a pretty routine kids movie, that would be true, if not for the steady use of the “F-word” and a few eruptions of rather intense violence — no less distressing because Dano’s Jay and his ski-masked Animal Liberation Front are so apologetic during their attacks, politely insisting that they never meant to hurt anyone. There’s also a tough-to-stomach scene in which Okja is introduced to her “boyfriend,” resulting in some rough breeding. Bong has clearly included this scene just to upset, since Okja is sent to the slaughterhouse long before she could have piglets. And then, of course, there are the horrors of the slaughterhouse itself, in which hundreds of super pigs are penned in what looks like the yard of a German concentration camp, then carved up for meat inside.

Whether genetically modified or not, most people don’t want to know where their food comes from, but Bong insists, creating a sequence that’s more frightening than anything in “The Host.” If Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was able to galvanize the public into insisting upon reform in the meat-packing industry, perhaps “Okja” could bring about change as well — though it’s important to remember that Sinclair was more concerned with the working conditions in such factories than the ethics of what we eat.

Certainly, this is a far different kind of creature feature from Bong’s “The Host,” although audiences can’t help but recognize the same mix of over-the-top flamboyance and reductive philosophy. (Toxic waste is bad! Meat is murder!) Nearly all the scenes involving Gyllenhaal and Swinton play like those unhinged Asian game shows where exaggerated personalities in eyesore costumes hyperventilate on camera. It’s Bong’s prerogative, but still bizarre to see Westerners depicted this way, and Swinton in particular seems to have beamed in from some parallel dimension. When the actress’s two characters finally meet, we expect them to clash, but instead, Hillary-haired Nancy leans in to light her sister’s cigarette, and Lucy is never heard from again.

Shot in bright, cinematic widescreen by DP Darius Khondji, this Netflix-produced feature belongs on the big screen, where no one would mistake Okja for a real animal, and yet the CG is convincing enough to suspend disbelief. Bong has chosen to make Okja a larger-than-life animal, but she could just as easily be a talking pig (there’s plenty of “Babe” DNA here already) — the key is that his audience be able to recognize her soul. And yet, Mirando employees repeatedly insist that super-pig meat is quite the delicacy, which puts audiences in the strange position of wondering how the movie’s main character might taste.

Cannes Film Review: 'Okja'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 19, 2017. Running time: 118 MIN.


A Netflix Original Film release of a Plan B Entertainment, Lewis Pictures, Kate Street Picture Co. production, in association with Netflix. Producers: Bong Joon-ho, Doo-ho Choi, Dede Gardner, Lewis Taewan Kim, Jeremy Kleiner, Woo-Sik Seo, Ted Sarandos. Executive producers: Pauline Fischer, Collin Creighton, Kim Woosang, Christina Oh, Sarah Esberg, Brad Pitt, Stan Wlodkowski. Co-producers: Tilda Swinton, Sandro Kopp.


Director: Bong Joon-ho. Screenplay: Bong, Jon Ronson; story: Bong. Camera (color, widescreen): Darius Khondji. Editor: Jin-mo Yang.


Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo-hyun, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik-choi, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal. (English, Korean dialogue)

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  1. Carmen says:

    Lucy wasn’t planning on sending Okja to the slaughterhouse so it wasn’t a pointless scene. It was her sister that wanted to kill Okja. Js.

  2. Simon says:

    What impressed me the most about this movie is the pacing never let up and there were more than a few critical junctures in the movie that could go either way. Really amazing film making and anyone who loved the pace of the director’s earlier films will love this one. Anyone criticizing it needs to remember this movie was hardly meant to be the next blockbuster masterpierce.

    My only fault as someone who lost all four grandparents and many other relatives to the holocaust was the scene at the meatpacking plant which quite frankly was meant to look as clearly as possible as a dark night at a concentration camp. I was terrified by this scene but for the wrong reasons.

  3. Thomas says:

    My interpretation of events was that Okja was to be bred, but when the public unveiling was a PR disaster, Lucy was deposed and her more profit-minded sister decided to “liquidate” the company’s assets as quickly as possible.

  4. The Legless Snake says:


    Frankly, the film’s happy ending is the weakest point of the film. Yes, a lot of the super pigs end up being butchered for their meat, but this suffers a similar condition to war movies: we don’t care how many background soldiers die as long as the main character who we are emotionally attached to survives and is hailed as a hero.
    The ‘best’ ending, to be bluntly honest, would have been the girl forced to watch as Okja is graphically sliced apart into steaks and ‘enjoyed’ by waiting connoisseurs who know nothing more of the creature except its flesh (and maybe even ignorantly offered the girl some of her friend’s meat). This would drive in the fact that this is what real-life pigs suffer for their whole lives: there is no happy ending, no miracle last-moment salvation, just a sudden, brutal end as painful a stab to the innocence as the death of Bambi’s mom. If the movie teases and takes a horrible peek into Okja’s intended fate, it should have had the guts to finish the job, ending a whimsical, happy fairy tale with a cruel bullet of reality.

    • EM says:

      The ending was much deeper than that. The trading of the pig for gold is a symbol that things can be different, and shows us that corporations are willing to provide as long as they profit from it. If companies lose the financial motivation to continue with this practice, we can change our course. That was the main point of the movie, to show people this fact. Unfortunately it’s a little easy to miss amidst all the chaos of that scene.

  5. Vagus says:

    The Mirando twins and Lucy’s accomplice (the Giancarlo Esposito character) are immediately obvious, but highly accurate, parodies of Hillary and Obama.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I bristle at the term “pot-bellied” when referring to Jake Gyllenhaal in Okja — when he throws his arms back, you can see his rib cage!

    • Anthony says:

      I think his performance is so gross that it makes you feel like his appearance is the same – I honestly think he’s the weakest point of the film, he’s too cartoonish

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