Okja, the genre-defying new film from Bong Joon Ho, has a startling coldness to it. It's not cold in the way that Bong's last film, Snowpiercer, was cold. Snowpiercer, with its icy landscapes of post-apocalyptic freeze, must have been one of the coldest films ever. No, with Okja it's a sleek, corporate cold. It's the grim cold you feel when you're on hold with an insurance company. It's the same cold you sense during Apple product launches.
The cold emanates from a multinational agrochemical company called the Mirando Corporation, a shadowy, Monsanto-like entity that specializes in genetically modified meat. The company's CEO, Lucy Mirando, is played by Tilda Swinton, whose tightly wound performance vacillates between PR-savvy cool and cackling outright evil. (Outfitted in "piggy pink" dresses and a blonde wig, Swinton's character has already drawn comparisons to Ivanka Trump.) When Okja begins, she is desperate to rescue the company's reputation for unseemly practices involving toxic waste. So she unveils an ambitious new publicity stunt: The Mirando Corporation will produce a new breed of "superpigs"—massive, mutant-like pigs designed to "taste fucking good"—and then send them around the world to be raised by 26 local farmers in different countries. The contest is to see which pig grows to be the biggest.
Ten years elapse, and the story picks up in South Korea, where a young girl named Mija (An Seo Hyun) is devotedly raising one of the superpigs, Okja, on a bucolic mountainside. They're best friends, Mija and Okja; the pig is a hulking, hippo-like creature, so bright and benevolent and loving that you forget it's just a tangle of CGI. Then, of course, the Mirando Corporation reappears to take the animal back. Cue again the chill of corporate greed. Mija is heartbroken. But when she realizes that Okja is headed for the dinner plate, she's determined to save the animal—so much so that she'll slam through a glass door and cling to a speeding truck if it means getting Okja back.
The action sequences are great cacophonous fun. But as a rescue adventure narrative, it's not really as predictable as it sounds. Things get weird when an animal rights group, whose militant-minded leaders are played by Paul Dano and Lily Collins, declares war on Mirando to try and save Okja. Meanwhile, the company plots to bring Mija to Manhattan and spotlight her in their cynical PR ploy. There's a weird glee in how Bong captures the corporate cabal in meltdown mode. Swinton rants and raves in an opulent skyscraper office. Jake Gyllenhaal goes for broke playing her most insecure underling, a brand ambassador named Dr. Johnny Wilcox. It is Gyllenhaal's most unhinged performance to date, or at least tied with 2014's Nightcrawler.
Snowpiercer, Bong's first English-language feature, also starred Swinton in a rather villainous capacity as the cruel minister of a train containing the last vestiges of humanity. Both films are thrilling and imaginative stories with dystopian elements and snarling sociopolitical overtones. But Okja is a brighter movie, both visually (the flamboyant costuming, the greenery of the Korean mountains) and tonally. It's not quite so bleak, especially with its childlike dimension. The animal cruelty is disturbing but not without purpose here. Okja contains multitudes: It's a scathing satire whose hero is a sweet, young girl whose best friend is a pig.
Okja might be easily interpreted as a polemic against eating animals, but co-screenwriter Jon Ronson tells me the film's message isn't exactly intended as pro-vegan: That's too simple, and the good guys in the film do eat meat. More accurately, Okja is a provocative rumination on the cruelty of American capitalism, on all the atrocity we'll tolerate for the sake of a good burger or maybe a new iPhone. There's a grisly scene that takes place in a slaughterhouse. When Mija demands to know why the pigs must be killed, Mirando’s fiendish sister Nancy—also played by Swinton—snarls that it’s because "we can only sell the dead ones."
The anticorporate message risks being heavy-handed at times, but the humor keeps it grounded. Plus, it feels like an inadvertently timely message in this country, with our looming health care bill and our commander-in-chief who seems to prize business acumen above moral compass. Capitalism is cold. Capitalism kills. And the victims are not always as cute as Okja.
It's a testament to Bong's sprawling ambition that Okja manages to be so many things at once—a caustic satire of corporate evil, an intercontinental action/adventure epic, a coming-of-age narrative for the girl. And it's a testament to his craft (and his cast—Swinton is especially stunning) that he pulls off these sudden tonal shifts. This film is a Netflix original, which drew some jeers at Cannes. (Most special-to-Netflix feature films, you see, are not this good.) But that pig is really, really big. At risk of being an insufferable snob, let me say: It deserves to be seen on a screen that's really, really big, too.