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.
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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.