"Okja is a most remarkable pig. As big as a medium-sized elephant, with a snout that looks more canine than porcine, she is slobbery and sometimes flatulent, but also loyal, gentle and brave. Okja is devoted, above all, to a girl named Mija. They have grown up together on a remote mountain farm that belongs to Mija’s grandfather, inseparable companions in a classic literary and cinematic tradition.
But anyone familiar with that tradition — I’ll mention “Old Yeller” and leave it at that — knows that stories of children and their pets are almost inevitably shadowed by tragedy and loss. The adult human world regards animals through a callous, utilitarian lens, as sources of food, labor or ornamental cuteness, a fact that “Okja,” Bong Joon-ho’s wonderful new film, takes to a dystopian but also an unnervingly realistic extreme.
The bond between Okja and Mija, who is an orphan, is the result of a contract neither one of them has read or signed. The pig is the physical and intellectual property of a multinational corporation, and as such she’s destined not only for the usual slaughter but also for crass and cynical commercial exploitation. The girl, a serious and stubborn child (played with heroic dignity by An Seo Hyun), is fated to lose her only friend.
The audience already suspects as much. The first face we see belongs not to a cute computer-generated piglet but to Tilda Swinton, in braces and a blinding platinum bob. Her character, Lucy Mirando — chief executive of the Mirando Corporation, which she inherited from her father — steps in front of the camera to preside over the brightly greenwashed presentation of a diabolical initiative. A new superbreed of swine has been created, she says, and 26 shoats will be distributed to farmers around the world to be raised in sustainable, free-range conditions. After 10 years, they will participate in a kind of livestock beauty pageant, overseen by a popular television veterinarian played by an antic and abrasive Jake Gyllenhaal.
Tilda Swinton as a chief executive in the food industrial complex in the film. Credit Kimberly
The vet’s arrival on Mija’s granddad’s farm, accompanied by Mirando suits and flacks (notably Yoon Jae moon and Shirley Henderson), signals the end of the film’s pastoral interlude, a forest romp as lyrical and magical as anything by the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Mr. Bong has an eye for natural beauty, and also a kinetic and rigorous sense of motion. Once it leaves the countryside, “Okja” turns into a swift urban caper, full of chases and other action-movie set pieces. Mija sets out to liberate her beloved pig, and is joined (and also partly thwarted) by members of the Animal Liberation Front, an earnest, not-always-competent militant group led by Paul Dano.
The pursuit of Okja jumps from Seoul to New York, and ends up at a nightmarish meat-processing plant in New Jersey. Mr. Bong, one of the great visual storytellers working in movies today — earlier films like “The Host” and “Snowpiercer” have shown him to be an artist of Spielbergian exuberance and skill — never muddies the frame with extraneous stuff or slows the narrative with tedious exposition. The picture, which never stops moving, is dense with information and feeling. Barbs of satire pop up and are washed away on streams of strong emotion. It’s all marvelously preposterous and yet, at the same time, something important is at stake.
A conventional name for that something would be humanity, since “Okja,” not unlike “E. T.,” is about how a young person achieves moral insight by connecting with and fighting for a nonhuman creature. Okja’s oppressors, like E. T.’s, are part of a system that refuses to recognize her as anything more than a thing. In this case, that system is specifically the food industrial complex, and her tale is a clear and effective animal rights fable, or at least a protest against factory farming and genetic engineering. (Nobody advocates for the fish and chickens Mija and her grandfather eat at home.)
This might make the movie sound heavier and more dogmatic than it actually is. But if you have seen “Snowpiercer,” a parable of global inequality set aboard a high-speed train, you know that Mr. Bong juggles delight and didacticism with exquisite grace. Rather than turn out cardboard heroes and villains, he savors the eccentricity of his characters, in the sheer weirdness of our ingenious and idiotic species. He is fascinated by the petty doctrinal arguments and personal rivalries in the ranks of the Animal Liberation Front and also by the boardroom intrigue within the Mirando Corporation. Keep your eye on Giancarlo Esposito, and your ear out for Lucy Mirando’s sister, Nancy.
The human performers are all brilliant, but the movie belongs to its title character and her digitally conjured, genetically modified ilk. Okja is a miracle of imagination and technique, and “Okja” insists, with abundant mischief and absolute sincerity, that she possesses a soul.
Director Joon-ho Bong
Writer Jon Ronson
Stars Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sheena Kamal