Okja review – giant Korean pig plus Tilda Swinton equals glorious family adventure

Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho has delivered a wonderful film comparable to ET or Roald Dahl in this story of a 13-year-old girl and her outsize pet

How can this movie’s producer - Netflix - ever be content with just letting it go on the small screen? Apart from everything else, the digital effects are spectacular and the visual images beautiful. It’s a terrible waste to shrink them to an iPad.

Okja is a Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s new “creature feature”, rather like his 2006 film The Host. But it’s also a lovely family action-adventure about a girl and the giant hippoesque pig, named Okja, that she has come to love like family. This exciting, charming, sweet-natured movie gives its audience heartmeltingly tender moments showing us their magical life together in the Korean mountains. Then it whooshes us to New York City and a world of cynicism, menace and danger. This movie just rattles along with glorious storytelling gusto in the spirit of Roald Dahl, ET creator Melissa Mathison and Dodie Smith, author of 101 Dalmatians.

And Bong Joon-ho has rather shrewdly hired British author and journalist Jon Ronson as his co-writer on this film and it could have been Ronson who brought in the flavour of the Anglo-Saxon classics – and almost certainly was responsible for big laugh lines in the New York headquarters of a heartless food tech company, whose hatchet-faced spin-crazed CEO marvels over the good press she’s getting in Slate, of all the hip places: “These are journalists who never write about pigs!”

An Seo-hyun gives an outstanding performance as 13-year-old Mija, who has grown up with no parents, looked after by kindly grandpa Heebong, played by Byun Heebong (who was in The Host and also Bong’s 2003 film Memories of Murder). Her only friend and companion is Okja, the giant pig leased to them by flinty-hearted food tech CEO Lucy Mirando, played by Tilda Swinton. Okja’s ultimate destiny is to be taken away from them, poked and prodded by Mirando’s scientists, displayed to the media as an example of next-level meat production, paraded with the firm’s grotesque celebrity TV vet Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) and then finally eaten.

But poor Mija has grown up not quite grasping that, and soon Heebong will have to break it to her that Okja must go, and it’s going to be like leading Baloo away from Mowgli and sending him to the abattoir. But a crew of animal rights activists, led by the inscrutable Jay (Paul Dano), have other ideas.

Admittedly, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as the gurning Dr Wilcox is pretty broad and so is Swinton’s own performance at the very beginning. But her presence in the film deepens and intensifies as time goes on, showing us new perspectives of family anxiety and she is a marvellously watchable villain, wincing and scowling with self-pity and fear.

The scenes in which Okja is imprisoned and then makes an escape are staged with such style and dash – and there’s a lovely moment when the heroic creature finds a natural way of bombarding her cop pursuers from the rear of the vehicle which has taken her safety. Spielberg would approve of the end-line to that scene.

There is something inspired in the way the director handles the contrast between the bucolic paradise in which Mija and Okja have grown up together and the alien jungle of the big city. The narrative dynamic is comparable to King Kong in its way; but less adult and less obviously knowing. The scenes at the beginning where Mija loses her footing and Okja instinctively improvises a rescue are tremendously conceived. And the digital creation of Okja is itself brought off with terrific skill. The pure energy and likability of this film make it such a pleasure.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Cannes apologises after technical problems and booing disrupts Netflix film Okja
Audience members hissed and stamped their feet after film starring Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal was shown in the wrong aspect ratio

Gwilym Mumford

19, May, 2017 @11:06 AM

Article image
With Okja, does Netflix have its first blockbuster movie?
The fantasy epic, directed by South Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho, could be the streaming service’s first big splash in original cinema

Jake Nevins

28, Jun, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
'It's a hustle': Jon Ronson on how he made it into movies with the help of Okja the giant pig
When Jon Ronson was asked to work on a screenplay about a girl’s fight to rescue a fantastic beast, it was the start of a $60m adventure

Jon Ronson

15, Jun, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
As Cannes turns 70, must cinema adapt to survive in new digital era?
Festival bosses are welcoming TV shows but have banned Netflix films from the Palme d’Or

Vanessa Thorpe

13, May, 2017 @11:05 PM

Article image
'Netflix will have to suck it up': why the Cannes film festival is not so chill | Peter Bradshaw
The streaming giant has had a spoke in its wheel after protests over two of its Cannes films not being released in cinemas. But if it wants the kudos, Netflix will have to toe the line

Peter Bradshaw

11, May, 2017 @8:54 PM

Article image
Netflix invests $50m in Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho's new film
VoD company backs movie about kindly monster, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Bill Nighy, as service moves into Asia

Andrew Pulver

11, Nov, 2015 @1:05 PM

Article image
Cannes film festival takes on Netflix with new rule
Organisers react after unrest about inclusion of Netflix films The Meyerowitz Stories and Okja in competition this year

Gwilym Mumford

11, May, 2017 @8:34 PM

Article image
Cannes festival to right past wrongs with women directors to the fore
Nicole Kidman and Tilda Swinton head for the red carpet as Vanessa Redgrave unveils her directorial debut – and virtual reality arrives on the Croisette

Andrew Pulver

17, May, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Okja review – a creature feature to get your teeth into
Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s genetically modified satire puts a skewer through the meat industry – while also shaking up the future of film

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

25, Jun, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Memoria review – Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton make a dream team
The Thai master’s English-language debut – about an expat attuned to strange frequencies in Colombia – more than matches his past mystic odysseys

Peter Bradshaw

15, Jul, 2021 @3:45 PM