In Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth (1996), a pregnant woman finds herself at the center of a tug of war between pro-life and pro-choice zealots.
An idiotic drug addict without a shred of dignity to her name nor her reputation, she has bore four children (all of whom have been retrieved by the state), is essentially homeless, and doesn’t know how to do much else besides have sex and huff paint.
Somewhere during the film’s beginning, she discovers she’s pregnant again. Which, of course, happens to coincide with yet another drug arrest. Upon her hearing, the judge rolls his eyes. He’s seen it all before, and knows this woman, nearing 30, is never going to change her ways. So following their latest rendezvous in court, he lets it slip that he’ll be less harsh in her sentencing if she gets an abortion.
Since the eponymous Ruth is an airhead so infatuated by cheap thrills she cannot do anything else besides scavenge for them, she considers it. But then pro-choice advocates catch wind of the situation. As do pro-life activists. Mania ensues.
But the film never takes sides. It comes to one conclusion: these people undoubtedly care about their cause. But they’ve gotten so caught up in the dramas of protesting, and in the highs of temporary success, that it’s the power and the glory that drives them. They don’t really want a resolution. They just want a bunch of small victories, the thrills too great to ever desire an ending.
The characters of Bong Joon-ho’s latest masterstroke, Okja (2017), operate similarly. We have quasi-heroes and quasi-villains — animal rights activists and deliciously evil corporate types — but neither have the most straightforward of intentions. The animal rights people are more in love with taking down major companies than they are with animals; the corporate types claim their latest scheme is centrally about boosting the economy and easing world hunger, but what they really like is fiscal benefit. Anyone can easily be bought if you try hard enough. They forget that at the middle of all their power plays lies a very human center.
Okja begins in 2007, wherein the Mirando corporation, headed by the eerily cheerful, bottle blonde Lucy Mirando (a fantastic Tilda Swinton), is unveiling their latest undertaking. Condemned by the public for their toxic waste habit, Mrs. Mirando, looking to bolster her family’s name, has decided to make use of her company’s prolific GMO labs and go where no one has before. To an astounded public, she announces the “super pig” project.
In the company’s laboratories, top scientists from around the globe have been synthetically designing a new type of porker comparable in stature to a mastodon. They have made 26 in total, and each boar will be raised in a different location in various international destinations. Whoever raises the largest piggy in a span of 10 years will earn a valuable prize. What’s most important is not only the relieving of hunger around the world, but also the manufacturing of a product that, as Mrs. Mirando puts it, tastes “fucking good.”
The film jumps ahead a decade — of course — and we lay eyes on one of the super pigs for the first time. Named Okja and living on the South Korean countryside with a kindly zoologist and his granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the swine has never known anything but bliss. The friendship between the latter and Mija is especially prominent, as if Bong were going for a backwards take on My Dog Skip (2000).
But the heartwarming moments we witness between the two are going to come screeching to a halt — the time in which the Mirando company takes Okja back for the “competition” is happening in a relatively short time, and they’re not going to let Mija’s pleas get to them.
Mija won’t have it. So enamored with her pet is she that she runs miles from home to catch up with her Okja, following the latter first to Seoul and then to the states. The Mirando corporation relentless, Mija inadvertently sides with the Animal Liberation Front, who, despite wanting the creature to briefly go back into the throes of recapture so hidden cameras can record what the Mirando company is really up to, are perfectly content helping Mija and Okja return to their rose-colored existence.
But are the ALF’s intentions completely pure, and are Lucy Mirando and her comrades as compassionate they try to convince the public? In Okja, everyone is bullshitting, ensnared by their own agendas. Except for Mija and Okja, beings of unforced goodness who simply want to live in the mountains together and enjoy each other’s friendship.
It’s partially social satire, partially keyed-up fantasy, but in the hands of Bong, Okja feels impossible to categorize. As it went with the filmmaker’s most acclaimed works, 2006’s The Host (a balls-to-the-wall monster movie) and 2013’s Snowpiercer (a grimy sci-fi thriller), the director is the all-too-rare artist whose ideas are so eccentric and whose execution is so otherworldly it’s difficult to even pinpoint who his influences might be. He’s a true original, making one-of-a-kind daydreams so outré we’re pressed to wonder who planted such seeds in Bong in the first place.
Okja is so specific, swerving into so many different genres — and subcategories of those subgenres — it seems to exist on a separate planet; one could even compare Bong’s idiosyncrasy to that of David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino, artists whose styles are so distinct we can immediately tell who’s lurking behind the cameras once the first shot of one of their films makes way.
The comedy is an entanglement of whimsy, operetta, and the go-for-the-throat instincts of Armando Iannucci. The action emulates the humorous insanity of a 1930s screwball farce. The drama, sharp, is sometimes melodramatic, sometimes severely dark. Maybe it’s even a paralleling of our politically tumultuous times, daring the world to consider that maybe love is the best way to conquer the perpetual hatred and self-fulfillment we so constantly hear about, watch, experience.
A tone as jagged as the cliffs Mija and Okja call home is a threat, but Bong isn’t one to succumb to the uncertainties of intimidation. The film is so many things at once and manages to never lose its footing, not unlike one of the people working for the Mirando corporation who work under high stress on an everyday basis and yet make being cutthroat seem painless. One false move and this could all be mumbo jumbo. Bong, fortunately, is incapable of making one.
His actors keep up with him, too. As part of a massive, international ensemble Swinton (as the greedy rich bitch who refuses to accept what a monster she is), Ahn (as the sweetie who proves her worth so many times she seems capable of doing anything to which she sets her mind), Gyllenhaal (as an overtly maniacal television personality), and Dano (as the ALF leader who’s every self-consciously smooth-talking, bandwagon-hopping “activist” you’ve ever met) individualistically stand out in roles that require a certain sort of lunacy to pull off.
Because Okja is so unsurpassed in its every technical and artistic category, it sometimes resembles the cinematic equivalent of a symphony, hundreds of parts coming together to cohere a swirl of harmonies and colors. That it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to a tizzy of controversy thanks to Bong’s decision to release the movie on Netflix is all too fitting. This is a movie that should be discussed, and if it takes a controversial release to get us there, so be it.
Here is a blockbuster — or what should be a blockbuster — that feels made from scratch, from unbridled dedication. It is funny, sad, kinetic, aloof, fantastical, naturalistic, exciting, dramatic. In an age where so many cinematic mammoths feel cobbled together, it is something akin to a used match dropping onto a puddle of gasoline. It is a true epic. That it is about a girl and her pig is one of 2017’s biggest surprises. And one of its greatest.