clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In Netflix's fantastic, wacky Okja, it's Tilda Swinton vs. superpig

It’s a satire about factory farming and corporate greed, but with awesome chase scenes.

Tilda Swinton in Okja
Tilda Swinton in Okja
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

A sprightly, creepily cheery woman strides across the screen. She’s wearing a fantastical blond blunt-cut wig and has braces on her teeth. She’s Lucy Mirando, she tells us, with an indefatigable grin. (She’s Tilda Swinton, of course.) She’s the new CEO of Mirando Corporation, a pharmachemical giant that’s in need of a serious image revamp after committing some light atrocities against mankind. And in this corporate video, she’s going to unveil her plan to achieve that revamp: a global superpig breeding contest.

It’s a lot to take in, but it makes for an intoxicating start to Okja, the latest bonkers satire from director Bong Joon-ho. In his past work, which includes movies like Snowpiercer and The Host, Bong has proven that he can put his imagination to splendidly zany use and deliver biting social critique at the same time. Okja is his latest example of this approach — and this time, it comes with the addition of a giant, lovable pig-hippo-puppy hybrid. The film is a wild ride, and definitely one worth taking.

Okja was already controversial before it premiered: Along with its fellow Netflix release The Meyerowitz Stories, it was selected to play in competition at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. But because of arcane French laws that restrict a film from coming to streaming services until 36 months after its theatrical release, Netflix didn’t plan a French theatrical release for either film. French theater owners protested Cannes’s selection of the two films, and the resulting arguments and policy changes became the controversy of the festival, which revealed a rift between different ways of thinking about the theatrical experience.

But the film itself was warmly received (even with a botched first press screening). It’s hard not to love it. Okja’s unusual introduction to the world was oddly fitting for a film that’s every bit as weird — and on the whole, every bit as wonderful — as you’d expect from Bong, especially in a screenplay co-written with Frank screenwriter Jon Ronson.

Okja critiques factory farming and corporate greed in the most fun way imaginable

The film starts in 2007, when Swinton’s Lucy Mirando — who is succeeding her sister Nancy as Mirando Corporation’s CEO — has come up with the idea of sending 26 “superpiglets,” bred from a happy and unusually excellent pig discovered at a farm in Chile, to farmers around the globe. The idea, we’re told, is that each superpiglet will be bred according to local farming practices, and in 10 years they’ll be judged in a globally broadcast contest helmed by the new face of Mirando Corporation, television personality Dr. Johnny Wilcox (a sweaty and unhinged Jake Gyllenhaal, pitching his voice into every register imaginable).

Then we jump forward to 2017. One of the superpiglets, named Okja, has been living a happy life with the farming family who raised her in the mountains of Korea. Her favorite person in the world is Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun), an orphan living with her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong). Mija was only 4 when Okja joined the family, and the pair grew up together frolicking in the woods, each the other’s caretaker.

But now the time for the competition has come. The Mirando representatives arrive on the mountain, where Dr. Johnny proclaims Okja the best of the superpigs. As preparations are being made to transport Okja to the unveiling in New York City, Mija becomes determined to keep that from happening.

A scene from Okja
A girl and her superpig.

The story unfolds from there, combining madcap chase scenes and wry (but savage) corporate satire with touches borrowed from torture horror and dropping them into a story about factory farming. There are ostensibly peaceful ecoterrorists, too, in the form of the cleverly named ALF (Animal Liberation Front), a group led by a very sincere young man named Jay (Paul Dano). The ALF tries to outsmart Mirando’s cadre of suits — especially Lucy and her chief henchman (Giancarlo Esposito) — and everything gets wildly out of hand.

Okja is at its best when it gives in to its most human (and superpig) moments

And so it should. Bong’s great skill as a director is soulful social satire, juxtaposing the absurd with surprisingly touching moments that help his films retain the kind of humanism that is sometimes absent in satirical works. In Okja there are psychopaths, for sure, but there are also people for whom practical concerns get in the way of ideals: Dr. Johnny is a self-proclaimed “animal lover” who finds himself in bed with big farming, and Jay can’t quite keep his crew of idealistic activists loyal to their total no-harm stance.

Okja isn’t perfect; it falls down when the bizarre and the serious ricochet back and forth between scenes, making it hard to track the film’s tone. But that’s easily forgivable, because Okja is a big, ambitious movie, and when it works, it is ridiculously fun.

Okja extends a more standard anti–factory farming argument in order to skewer the absurd ways in which corporations co-opt the language of environmental and localist movements to reel in consumers. The result is kind of a master class in how vocabulary can be leveraged for insidious ends. Words like “natural!” and “eco-friendly!” are splashed across the screen behind Lucy Mirando as she announces the superpig competition. And the idea of having local farmers raise superpiglets is, of course, a handy way to camouflage what’s really going on at Mirando Corporation (which is headquartered in Paramus, New Jersey, of all places).

Jake Gyllenhaal in Okja
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a wild and weird TV personality in Okja.

If factory farming is an ugly product of the corporatization of American culture, so is the twisting of activist movements — from environmentalism to feminism to political ideologies — into corporate lingo, and the cynical transformation of noble ideals into sales slogans. And Bong cleverly broadens his approach to this idea by showing how it affects cultures far beyond the borders of the US.

That this market critique comes from a movie so closely tied to Netflix, which often comes in for economic and corporate critique both at film festivals and in the broader marketplace, makes it more than a little ironic. And there’s plenty about the company that’s concerning to people who care about both the business and the aesthetics of cinema.

But Okja is also a rare breed of movie: It boasts a multi-hemispheric setting and cast, the extended use of two languages, and the distinction of combining action, arthouse filmmaking, and political satire in one funny, biting, disturbing, and often kind of adorable package. Would traditional studios, with their proclivity for blandly appealing blockbuster fare, even have the guts to gamble on a film like Okja?

Okja releases in limited theaters and on Netflix on June 28.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.