Watching Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja” made me wish I was ten years old again, and I don’t mean this with irony. “Okja” is brilliantly entertaining, but it would likely be better enjoyed by someone who’s very young, in spite of the several adult-size questions the film raises, in passing. In preparing to offer him the role of Johnny Wilcox (a white, more flamboyant version of Brian Fellow from SNL’s “Safari Planet”) Bong Joon Ho told Jake Gyllenhaal he was sort of making a children’s movie.
Mija (played by young actress An Seo Hyun) lives in the mountains with her grandfather and a giant pig (called a superpig) named Okja (pronounced “Oak-Jah”). The pig (in a brilliantly-lifelike CGI rendition), was raised by the child and her grandfather as part of a ten year-long contest on supersized livestock organized by the Mirando Corporation. This company, run by Lucy Mirando (Swinton) from their corporate headquarters in New York City, is in the agro-chemical business (any resemblance to that other company, Monsanto, is deliberate, presumably). The idea behind the contest was to find out what the optimal environment for raising this unusual kind of livestock is.
The pigs were genetically modified by Mirando specifically so that they could provide the biggest yield with the lowest carbon footprint. They eat little and therefore pollute little, too. Anyone can agree that this, in and of itself, is a viable idea for mankind’s survival. But can transmuted bacon also be the evil harbinger of superbugs? A new kind of airborne malaria? These questions aren’t touched on by Bong Joon Ho, or very little. Instead, the Korean-born filmmaker sticks to the simple but essential question of love, such as that which unites Okia to Mija.
“Okja” highlights mankind’s increasingly-wreckless and desperate search for ways to sustain itself, and in this, the film is visionary, if not acutely timely. We hear about the world becoming overpopulated and food shortages becoming the planet’s number one concern twenty-five, or fifty years, from now. And, modeled after real-life Monsanto, a behemoth of a company that does a lot of work towards preserving nature and humankind but one that also became public enemy number one when they started aggressively promoting genetically-modified crops, the Mirando corporation engineered mutant livestock to help feed people while turning a healthy profit. Let us all agree that GMOs are probably bad. But let us all, also, concur that the food supply will run short at some point.
“Okja” was a pleasure to watch. As I have often noticed Asian filmmakers do, style and specificity, like in the characters’ wardrobe, is important. Here, it is also the case. Joon Ho enlisted New York City-based Catherine George, the same costume designer who worked on his previous film “Snowpiercer.” In a scene in which young Mija escapes to Seoul to rescue her super-pig, Bong Joon Ho films from above as she walks out from a subway station that’s swarming with people. Everyone is wearing different shades of grey, white and black. She is the only one wearing a red coat, a splash of color, of hope, in the dreary adult world.
At the beginning of the film Mija walks around in the mountain with her pet superpig Okja in search of fruits and nuts. To think that there’s no real animal in front of the camera and yet Bong Joon Ho collaborators Dan Glass (Method Studios) and Erik-Jan De Boer, a special effects supervisor who earned an Oscar for his work on “Life of Pi,” not only create one but give life to this charming, and really large, pig, is not just an amazing feat, it’s also a precursor of the great technological advances in computer imagery to come to cinema. The benevolent creature Okja is so real, you kind of want to rent an eighteen-wheeler and take it home.
Principal photography took only five months. It would be hard to do justice to the kind of punishing level of effort that this film took to make. Just to give you an idea, in prepping for the film 1,080 different locations were scouted in South Korea’s countryside, including 750, in helping choose Mija’s home, and another 300 cliff edges were visited. Twenty underground malls (a chase scene takes place in a shopping mall), fifty grocery stores and one hundred police stations were looked at. Shooting took place in Vancouver, New York City and South Korea. Darius Khondji lensed the film. Other notables on the cast include Tilda Swinton, Giancarlo Esposito, the always lovely and funny Shirley Henderson and Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead”).