Okja An Seo Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal. Directed by Bong Joon Ho. Not rated. Available June 28 on Netflix.
South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho takes bold risks with his movies, and bold risks don’t always pay off. Working with Netflix has allowed Bong total artistic freedom on Okja, his second (mostly) English-language feature, and the movie’s vision is certainly all his. It’s also mostly a mess, shifting tones and genres in a way that will be familiar to fans of acclaimed Bong films The Host and Snowpiercer, but that might be too jarring for new viewers who come across the movie on the Netflix home page.
Those shifts are less successful than in Bong’s previous movies, and the disparate elements don’t add up to much by the end. The title character is a genetically engineered “super-pig,” created by corporate agribusiness Mirando, led by weirdly childlike CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, also one of the movie’s producers). As a publicity stunt, Mirando gives 26 of its super-pigs to small farmers around the world to raise for 10 years, with the biggest and best unveiled at a huge corporate celebration. Given how adorable the dog-like Okja is, though, it’s no surprise that Korean tween Mija (An Seo Hyun) bonds with the animal over the course of a decade, and is not too happy to learn that her beloved companion is set to become the world’s most famous pork chop.
The first half of Okja resembles E.T. and other movies about children befriending strange but lovable creatures, culminating in an inventive chase through the streets of Seoul. While An gives a likable, sympathetic performance, Mija’s bond with Okja is pretty simplistic, and it’s not enough to carry the movie, as Bong detours into misguided corporate satire and a thudding, self-righteous anti-factory farming message. Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal (as a narcissistic TV wildlife-show host) give ridiculously over-the-top performances, and the grating score by Jaeil Jung often sounds like a cross between a mariachi band and circus music. Okja herself is an impressive special effect, and Bong’s vision remains unique even when it’s totally baffling. This time, though, his ambitions seem to have outstripped his ability to realize them effectively.