The pantheon of crushingly lovable cinematic creatures needs to clear a very large alcove, and lay on a good supply of fresh persimmons, for Bong Joon Ho‘s Okja, the eponymous, enormous, hippo-like “superpig” whose covalent bond with her human best friend could pulverize the hardest of hearts. This is the visionary, genre-bending Korean director’s most broadly accessible film ever, not just because it’s largely in English, and not just because its so full of fun and mischief and adventure. It’s also because it’s a relationship we recognize from the other children’s classics to which it easily compares (“E.T.” being the obvious touchpoint), and possibly even, if we were very lucky kids, from our actual childhoods. Okja is platonic ideal of the childhood companion, an imaginary friend made manifest and given substance and character through spectacular CG and clear-eyed, sincere sentiment. This is a gorgeously realized popcorn movie of the most satisfying, comforting, restorative kind: full as its heart is, it has a lot on its mind, yet you’d also quite like to curl up on its belly and doze in the sun.
The creature work is amazing: as much as we’ve come to expect flawless CG visuals there’s a harmony to how the pictures work with the backgrounds and especially the sound design, which, as much as Okja’s softly juddering rolls of flesh and the perfectly believable Newtonian physics of the creature running, falling, rolling over, colliding with trees and splashing into ponds, evokes the animal’s heft. And this real, tangible presence — something new in this old world — finds a wonderful foil in newcomer An Seo Hyun, who plays Mija, the dauntless little girl who will go to other side of the world to rescue her bestial bestie.
Orphan Mija has known Okja since she was just four, when, as a superpiglet, she was delivered to her grandfather’s farm by multinational Mirando in a promotional contest designed by CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) to soften the company’s image. They’ve grown up together, and have a near-symbiotic link: Ojka is not just a docile pet, but shows flashes of real intelligence (maybe the result of all the secrets Mija has whispered in her big floppy ear over the years). In an exciting sequence early on we see her work out a problem involving basic lever-and-pulley physics, thereby saving her human pal’s life. But it’s now 10 years later and the shady project is reaching its fruition, a fact of which Mija is entirely unaware until company reps headed by celebrity zoologist Dr. Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a performance broader than Okja’s rear end), aided by a little deception from her tightwad grandfather, come to take Okja away. The film has hardly begun and already the prospect of this separation is nearly as devastating to us as it is to the central pair.
Mija sets off to get Okja back, along the way encountering ALF, the Animal Liberation Front, headed by Jay (Paul Dano, expertly cast as a militant vegetarian and passionately non-violent animal rights crusader). They are nominally on her side but manage to make things much worse, via a hilarious chase sequence that comes crashing to a halt in a Seoul underground mall, where a fleeing and panicked Okja destroys a Daiso (Japanese gadget/drugstore franchise) to the archly hip strains of John Denver‘s “Annie’s Song.” They make a further brief escape, aided by Mija’s knowledge that if she rubs Okja in exactly the right spot, she will shoot excrement from her derriere (which makes this the second time, after “Swiss Army Man” that Paul Dano has been saved from peril by flatulence). But the pair are separated again, and this time Okja is shipped to America, where unspeakable things befall her, at the self-deceiving behest of Lucy Mirando and her corporate cronies (including a poisonously smooth Giancarlo Esposito, and a jittery Shirley Henderson).
It’s a beautiful, Darius Khondji-shot, wild adventure with a plucky heroine at its center, but it’s also a Bong Joon Ho movie, so it’s by no means sanded-down Hollywood homogeneity. Gyllenhaal’s performance will doubtless prove its most divisive element, being so outsized and tic-laden, a grotesque mix of Steve Irwin, Gyllenhaal’s “Nightcrawler” character and a Batman villain from the Burton era. But it’s also oddly heartening to see a turn so outlandish be encouraged, and along with well-observed topical references, like Henderson sipping a dainty coffee while a protester is slammed into a nearby window with undue force by a militiaman in riot gear, it means that underlying the broad, family-film emotionality there is spiky satire and passionate social critique.
This is the first irony of Netflix’s involvement. The unstoppable rise of the screening giant to near-monopoly status feels like a natural byproduct of the entertainment free market. But “Okja” is deeply, to its core, anti-capitalist. It is pro-resistance, pro-citizen activist, and though ALF are shown to be riven with the kind of internal doctrinal schisms common to many left-leaning organizations, it’s notable that all of the non-Korean human heroes in this story are pulled from its ranks.
And the second contradictory thing about this film bearing the (Cannes-booed, naturally) Netflix logo up top is that the big noise at this year’s festival has all been about streaming vs the theatrical experience. But the first Netflix movie ever In Competition finds its natural habitat on the big screen, right down to including that least “convenient” of film conventions, a post-credits sequence (stay through the end, everyone!) In emotional reach, spectacle and form it seems designed, from the fine-grain detail of bristles and hide, to the massive, expansive overheads, to lollop and loll all over the biggest screen you can see it on. This is the funny, moving “Okja” — a perfectly cinematic and extraordinarily persuasive manifesto for anti-capitalist activism, civil resistance, traditional farming methods and, finally, full-bore vegetarianism. My heart is full, but my stomach is empty, so I’m off to research non-animal protein sources. [A]