"Above all, it has to taste f*cking good!"


The Mirando corporation has undertaken a decade-long project to create a breed of genetically engineered ‘super pig’ for human consumption. Knowing the idea of GM meat may not be received all that favourably by consumers, the upper echelons of the company – led by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) – cover up the fact by claiming the super pigs were discovered, sending twenty-six super piglets to countries around the world and launching a competition of sorts to choose the finest of the animals - on them reaching maturity - to represent the brand.
Ten years down the line, Okja – the super pig raised in Korea – is treated as a much loved pet and even almost a friend by Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the granddaughter of farmer Heebong (Byun Hee-bong). The two are virtually inseparable and lead a tranquil, idyllic existence in a mountainous, rural area of the Peninsula. When Okja is chosen as Mirando’s ‘poster pig’, if you will, Heebong informs Mija that he has had to give the pig back to the company, to be moved first to Seoul and then the US... and so begins the young girl’s frantic journey to catch up to and save her animal friend. However, desperate though Mija’s situation is, even she is unaware of just how final Okja’s journey will be if she fails...


Throughout his career, director Bong Joon-ho has infused his films’ narratives with insightful commentaries on societal issues, social injustices and/or corporate and even governmental hidden agendas – whether you, for example, consider the real life, historical brutality of the police as seen in Memories of Murder; look at the fictional corporate dumping of toxic waste into the Han river creating the monster in The Host (and indeed the subsequent government sanctioned use of Agent Orange to kill the beast regardless of the danger and cost to human life); or indeed cite the, again fictional, decision by world leaders in Snowpiercer to release a gas into the atmosphere in an effort to combat global warming that ends up causing a new Ice Age; etc etc.
Not only do the numerous corporate lies detailed in Okja sit perfectly alongside Bong Joon-ho’s previous film critiques but considering the many recent news stories of real life scandals concerning the food industry – packaging lies about the country of origin of produce including meat; food companies hiding the fact that some so-called healthy options contain as much fat and sugar as fast food – Okja’s narrative commentary is entirely topical, wholly relevant and completely plausible.

Okja begins by briefly stepping back in time to the official announcement of the super pig project, and from as early as Lucy Mirando’s entrance onto the stage her megalomaniac nature is clearly on show. Not only that, but almost as quickly it becomes obvious that she is (much like Swinton’s character in Snowpiercer) self-servingly eccentric to almost the point of unhinged, possibly dangerous oddball and while she may not be (quite) as vitriolically psychopathic as her Snowpiercer counterpart, her twin sister, Nancy Mirando (also played by Swinton), certainly is.

In terms of both characterisations and narrative, eccentric and quirky really is the order of the day here, certainly until the film takes a seriously dark turn after the halfway point. Whether you consider Lucy Mirando, the deeply over-the-top (and, to my mind, more often than not severely annoying) Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), or the sometimes chaotically inept members of the Animal Liberation Front, virtually everyone Mija comes up against is off the wall personality-wise within one of many weirdly twisted situations. So much so, that Mija, her grandfather and Okja herself (yes, Okja is a female super pig) come across as virtually the only normal main characters present. But that’s kind of the point. After all, Okja is not only a David and Goliath tale for the 21st century but also a story of the ordinary pushed to extraordinary lengths by corporate lunacy.

And, yes, you did read the above correctly. I did indeed refer to Okja as every bit as much a character as Mija, her grandfather and indeed any other character you care to mention. In the early stages of the film, Bong Joon-ho goes to great lengths – and deftly so – to show Okja’s personality in her interactions with Mija in Korea, prior to the appearance of the Mirando corporation. By focusing on the sweet and innocent times Mija spends with her super pig friend – not least what the pig does to save Mija when she is on the verge of falling off a mountain precipice – Bong Joon-ho ensures that as the story unfolds we not only willingly follow Mija in her efforts to save Okja but also feel sympathy for the animal as the terrible corporate treatment of her begins. This is further enhanced and accentuated by the film’s superlative special effects (both CG and physical) equally in the gentle, early sections and the subsequent, increasingly frenetic chase sequences to the extent that viewers will virtually never even consider the idea that Okja isn’t actually real.

The one downside for me personally in the success and engagement of Okja is in the aforementioned characterisation of Dr Johnny Wilcox by Jake Gyllenhaal. His performance is so over-the-top as to be far more deeply annoying than just weird and wacky and as such every time he appeared I simply wanted him off the screen, increasingly so as the narrative progressed.
It could also be said that some of the other character eccentricities are taken just a bit too far on a couple of occasions, but I am fully aware that my issues with the character of Wilcox were such that they likely influenced this feeling and if he hadn't been there (at least, as much) perhaps this wouldn't have been as much of a bug bear.

The pacing of the film is absolutely exemplary, as would be expected from one of the best Korean film directors working today. Okja effortlessly and seamlessly moves from laid back and dreamy to pulse-pounding and frantic as and when required by the darkening of the story.
While Okja is at times sweet, often genuinely quirky and ultimately uplifting, trust me when I say that the narrative does go to some deeply dark and utterly gripping places and, as can virtually be guaranteed in any Bong Joon-ho film, the narrative is peppered and the load lightened throughout by moments of genuinely funny dark humour. Whether you consider the fact that Mija can make Okja evacuate her bowels on demand (and how she uses that skill in the mid-stage of the story); or look at the hypocrisy of crowds cheering the magnificence of Okja while eating bars of super pig jerky, these small yet wholly memorable giggles are further strengths in an already superlative cinematic work.
Okja is a collaboration between Next Entertainment World of Korea and Netflix of the US and the success of the film on the majority of levels, all but for the above couple of caveats, bodes hugely well for such international collaborations in the future.


Accomplished, quirky, eccentric and wholly memorable, Okja is not only a David & Goliath tale for the 21st century but also a hugely entertaining and insightful story of the ordinary pushed to extraordinary lengths by corporate lunacy, albeit with a couple of minor caveats.


OKJA (옥자 / 2017)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Starring Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal


All images © Next Entertainment World (Korea), Netflix (US)
Review © Paul Quinn