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In Ambitious 'Okja,' A Teen Attempts To Save Her Super Pig From Slaughter


This is FRESH AIR. The South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho is known for his dark, imaginative and often satirical thrillers such as "The Host," "Memories Of Murder" and "Snowpiercer," which starred Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. Bong and Swinton have teamed up again on "Okja," a new film produced and distributed by Netflix. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The wildly inventive sci-fi thriller "Okja" tells the story of a courageous 13-year-old Korean girl named Mija, played by Ahn Seo-hyun, who is determined to protect her closest companion from being chewed up and spat out by the forces of 21st century capitalism. That companion is Okja, an enormous genetically-modified pig, a super pig as she's been branded by the executives at Mirando, a multinational agrochemical corporation that is trying to spearhead a revolution in global food production.

In the movie's prologue, we see CEO Lucy Mirando, played by Tilda Swinton, raving to the press about her plan to ship 26 miracle piglets to 26 farms around the world and hold an international contest to see which pig turns out to be the biggest specimen. Ten years later, the clear winner of the contest is Okja, who has swollen to Clifford the Big Red Dog proportions, looks like a mutant hippopotamus and enjoys an idyllic life on a remote Korean mountainside with Mija, her devoted caretaker. And when Mirando employees come to reclaim Okja and bring her to the company's New York headquarters for inspection, breeding and eventual slaughter, Mija is determined to save Okja at any cost.

"Okja" is the latest feature written and directed by the South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho and a companion piece of sorts to his 2006 monster movie "The Host." In that film, the disposal of toxic waste in the Hun River leads to the rise of a hideous creature that wreaks havoc on Seoul and abducts a young girl. "Okja" similarly mixes genre thrills and environmentally conscious satire, and it builds to a discreet but disturbing slaughterhouse climax that could put you off bacon for a lifetime. But it's a gentler movie in many ways, not least because the beast here is entirely benign.

Indeed, Mija and Okja share the only pure unconditional relationship in a movie where everyone else is compromised by some political or business agenda. As Mija follows Okja from Seoul to New York, she is both helped and hindered by a group of nonviolent eco activists called the Animal Liberation Front who want to use Okja to take the Mirando corporation down from the inside. The movie is clear-eyed enough to acknowledge when their actions are misguided, even in service of a righteous cause.

Similarly, Bong reserves a measure of compassion for Lucy Mirando. Swinton plays her with wide-eyed monomaniacal intensity, but she also shows us Lucy's profound insecurity, which only deepens as the fight to free Okja generates unflattering headlines and forces the company to go into damage control mode.


TILDA SWINTON: (As Lucy Mirando) The synthesis of old Mirando and new Mirando was impeccable. I took nature and science and I synthesized. And everyone loved it. You remember what The New York Times said about our super pigs? Lucy Mirando is pulling off the impossible. She is making us fall in love with a creature that we are already looking forward to eating. I mean, these are journalists who never write about pigs. They never write about pigs. They wrote about our pigs. Ten years in planning, on the cusp of a product launch that will feed millions and what happens? We get tangled up in this terrorism thing, and somehow we end up being the ones who look bad.

CHANG: Swinton gave a similarly eccentric performance in Bong's 2014 post-apocalyptic thriller "Snowpiercer," his first film shot primarily in English with Hollywood stars. Few Asian filmmakers have managed to achieve that level of crossover success, but Bong's command of genre is so fluent, his action thriller style so fleet and accessible that the usual barriers of language and culture effectively collapse. "Okja," a critique of globalization that is also a product of a globalized film industry, continues this progression toward the mainstream.

The movie is such an ambitious conceptual juggling act that it's no surprise that Bong can't fully sustain it over his two-hour running time. Some of the satire in the second half is too broad and overstated, and not all the disparate acting styles cohere. Giancarlo Esposito makes a droll impression as Lucy Mirando's is calculating number two. And Paul Dano is charming as the intensely scrupulous Animal Liberation Front leader, but Jake Gyllenhaal goes gratingly over-the-top as Dr. Johnny, a Steve Irwin-style TV personality who represents Mirando to the world.

In the end, though, there are only two performances that really matter. Ahn makes you root for Mija at every step of her journey. And Okja immediately takes her place among the most touching and realistic computer-generated characters ever made. Andy Serkis couldn't have played her any better. "Okja" begins streaming on Netflix this Wednesday and will also be playing a limited theatrical run in Los Angeles and New York. If the latter option is available to you, seize it. This super pig is worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for The Los Angeles Times. On tomorrow's show, the battle over American health care. The Congressional Budget Office says 15 million fewer people will be insured next year under the proposed Senate bill. Republican leaders dispute that, promising better care for less. We'll explore the issues with Sarah Kliff, senior policy correspondent at Vox. She's been covering health policy in Washington since the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVER NELSON'S "STOLEN MOMENTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.