"Okja" is the latest from Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, previously noted stateside for the offbeat sci-fi adaptation "Snowpiercer" and the supernatural family comedy "The Host." As with those films, Bong takes a number of wildly eccentric, over-the-top characters and places them in a bizarre, absurdist scenario, but keeps the relationships naturalistic and grounded, making fantasy films with real emotion, relevance and pathos. "Okja" is probably the best of the bunch, simultaneously a children's fable and a wrenching, politically-charged expose of the food industrial complex, that skillfully works on both levels at once.
In a dual role as wealthy heiress sisters Lucy and Nancy Mirando, Tilda Swinton opens the films by giving us a quick rundown of "Okja's" near-future world. The Mirando Corporation is developing a breed of new "super-pigs," significantly larger than conventional pigs, and also easier to raise. As part of the marketing promotion for the Super-Pig project, 26 specimens will be sent around the world to local farmers to raise. Our story follows young Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), who has become best friends with her family's Super-Pig, which she has named Okja. When she discovers what fate the Mirandos have in mind for her best friend, she sets off on an international journey to set things right.
"The Host" showcased Boon's deft ability to navigate different genres and tones within the confines of a single, coherent story, but "Okja" really takes things to another level entirely. Opening scenes establishing Mija's tight bond with Okja are, of course, necessary to give her mission to get her friend back stakes later on in the film, but Boon's able to do so much with very little screen time, and these passages always feel organic to the story (and surprisingly believable considering young Ahn is acting without a real animal). Jake Gyllenhaal is making a meal plus dessert out of the scenery here, as "Dr. Johnny," the TV presenter hosting the Super-Pig specials, but even this wildly over-the-top comic turn doesn't derail or overwhelm any of the genuine sadness in the second half.
"Okja" wears its heart on its sleeve, and could even be considered polemical at times. This is a movie that wants to make you think twice about eating meat, and it's not super-subtle about it. Nonetheless, it's such a funny, charming, likable adventure, that never feels preachy but nonetheless has a ton to say, I can't imagine anyone but the most strident pro-carnivore advocate taking issue with it.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Running time: 121 minutes