Whilst the opportunity to see this as a free one-off screening as part of the Curious Affection program at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) Cinemateque is a very welcome development for Brisbane movie fans, it defies belief that Netflix never made a concerted effort to secure a wider cinematic release. This is a film that needs to be seen in a cinema because everything about Joon-ho Bong’s follow up to Snowpiercer is writ large and really needs a screen to match. From the titular enormous pig, a genetically modified creation that looks more like a hippopotamus than a super-sized porker, to the mountains in which 14-year-old Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) lives with her grandfather (Hee-Bong Byun), there is a largesse to this wonderfully chaotic yet profoundly moving story of friendship amidst a battle between the company that has created the giant pigs in the interests of greater profits and the animal activists trying to disrupt the program and expose the cruelties being perpetrated on the creatures.
The film opens with Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) having just taken over the running of her family’s company from her twin sister, Nancy (also Swinton). Lucy claims a desire to rid the company of the legacy accrued through the actions of her father and sister by transforming the image of the organisation into one that has developed an ethical solution to a looming worldwide food shortage, namely the ‘discovery’ of a new breed of pig. As a PR exercise, piglets are given to farmers in different parts of the world in a competition to see who can raise the very best super pig over a period of 10 years. This period has elapsed when we meet Okja, who is now fully grown and living in the mountains outside Seoul as Mija’s pet and best friend. It is the arrival of celebrity animal wrangler Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) as the face of Mirando Corporation to confiscate Okja and deliver her to New York for the competition judging that sets the story into motion. Mija sets off on foot in pursuit and finds herself clinging to the back of the truck transporting Okja to the airport when the vehicle is intercepted by a group calling themselves the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). Rather than simply wanting to rescue Okja, the ALF wants to use the animal to infiltrate the Mirando facilities and expose the truth about the super pig program.
The digital rendering of Okja is remarkable and, even though you know the animal is a 100% CGI construct, you can’t help but come to see Okja as a sentient being because VFX supervisor Erik-Jan de Boer (an Oscar winner for Life of Pi) has created something utterly life-like. Furthermore, the performance of young Ahn is quite astonishing given that all her scenes with Okja required her to interact with nothing more than a rudimentary prop cut from foam. Swinton has never been afraid to take on unlikeable characters and is the perfect choice to play the Mirando sisters; each as vile as the other. The always reliable Paul Dano features as the leader of the ALF, a group of ideologically conflicted activists that also includes Lily Collins and Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun. Also featuring are Giancarlo Esposito and Shirley Henderson, whose squeaky-voiced Jennifer is perhaps supposed to be amusing, but only manages to be immensely irritating.
To Bong’s credit, he certainly doesn’t presume to present the animal welfare activists as the heroes of the piece, presenting the ALF’s actions as deceitful and morally dubious (to put it mildly) as they exploit Mija and Okja in the pursuit of their objective. There are some scenes in a slaughterhouse that might upset some people (but, this is a movie and none of it is real, so chill), but for the most part, Okja is a rollicking ride that manages to strike a balance between action-oriented entertainment and social commentary. This is another quality film from one of Korea’s most interesting filmmakers that is best appreciated on a big screen and, whilst those lucky enough to see it this way should be thankful, those confined to catching it on Netflix will no doubt enjoy it but perhaps won’t truly appreciate the true extent of what Hong and his team have created.