Nobody makes entertaining movies with purpose better than Korean director Bong Joon Ho. Both the dystopian train ride of “Snowpiercer” and the environmentally-conscious “The Host” combine outrageous, effects-driven showdowns with real ideas. The charming “Okja” continues that welcome trend, following the peculiar exploits of a mutant pig and the girl who loves her, while using that blatantly silly premise to assemble a savvy anti-corporate screed.
The director’s sixth feature takes place in an alternate present in which the bioengineering entity known as the Mirando Corporation has figured out a technology for growing animals in laboratories for food. In the snazzy, over-the-top opening sequence, CEO Lucy Miranda (Tilda Swinton with a sinister grin, revisiting the role of zany villain after a similar turn in Bong’s “Snowpiercer”) unveils a new challenge: The company will disseminate its baby pigs to farmers around the world, then recollect them in a decade for a beauty pageant. The whole thing reeks of infomercial nonsense, and it’s so on-the-nose that it sets the stage for a crude and obvious metaphor. But Bong has a subtle trick up his sleeve.
Cutting to 10 years later, he reveals the tranquil mountain life of preteen Mija (An Seo Hyun), who lives a settled existence in the countryside with her grandfather — and the giant, corpulent full-grown swine of the title. While not the most credible CGI creation, Okja’s hippo-like physicality makes her an endearing onscreen partner to the scrawny An, and the early scenes of the pair lounging around in the forest together have a disarmingly sweet quality.
Naturally, that idyllic scenario is short-lived, when a narcissistic television host (a mustachioed Jake Gyllenhaal, speaking in a high-pitch wail and turning up his flamboyance as high as it can go) arrives to document the animal before it’s shipped to New York for the pageant. Mija, who was unaware of the earlier arrangement made between her grandfather and the Miranda Corporation, launches an ambitious attempt to rescue her animal friend.
The ensuing plot allows “Okja” to keep expanding its frame, as it careens through the crowded streets of Seoul in a breathless chase scene before climaxing in the midst of a hectic New York City parade, where the company’s machinations run headfirst into the dedication of one young girl.
The movie’s underlying premise — child bonds with otherworldly beast and defends it from cruel adults — easily calls to mind “E.T.” or “Pete’s Dragon,” but Bong bends the formula into his own agenda. In the midst of an expertly choreographed sequence that finds Mija dangling from the truck taking Okja out of the country, she’s joined by the arrival of the Animal Liberation Front, a group of ski-mask-laden animal activists headed up by a virtuous Paul Dano. Once safely within the confines of their vehicle, she’s briefed on their intentions to use Okja to infiltrate the company and take it down from the inside.
As Mija’s efforts sync up with a grander agenda, “Okja” continues to open up as a fast, fun action-adventure enhanced by its politics. While it starts with the gentle human-animal dynamics of “Babe,” it eventually arrives at the polemics of “Fast Food Nation,” revealing a movie eager to please and editorialize at the same time.
As with “Snowpiercer,” this is a story almost too eager to fire in multiple directions, sometimes with messy results, veering from broad satire to softer exchanges with little regard for finding balance between the two. The scheming ensemble behind the scenes at the Miranda Corporation — which also includes a quietly menacing Giancarlo Esposito and an underutilized Shirley Henderson — never come across as anything more than maniacal cartoons, but the bond between Mija and Okja is genuine, and the chase scenes are bracing to watch.
Zipping along to a vibrant soundtrack, Bong crafts lively, action-packed moments that find the hulkish Okja careening through public spaces while people scramble around her. This includes one of the most striking moments in Bong’s entire career — a slow-mo battle set to John Denver’s “You Fill Up My Senses,” which finds the ALF forming a wall of umbrellas to defend a cornered Okja while Mija cowers nearby.
As this world collides with the devious intentions of Mirando’s slaughterhouse operation, “Okja” morphs into a tale of animal cruelty rooted in legitimate real world frustrations. In the process, it gets a little too busy with subplots, including an underdeveloped strand surrounding Swinton’s evil twin sister and complications within the group dynamic of the ALF, but it’s that uneven quality that speaks to the sheer uncompromising vision on display.
Financed by Netflix, “Okja” plays like the kind of original, idiosyncratic escapism that no studio would make these days. It may deserve more of a place in multiplexes than any conventional escapism crowding it out, and it’s safe to say that Netflix won’t bother trying to make that happen, but at least this wildly original ride can find an audience all over the world.
Even with the luxury of skipping ahead or turning off the tube, viewers are likely to remain enthralled throughout. The latest entry in Bong’s international period blends Korean and English actors for a global statement that crosses its cultural boundaries with ease. “Okja” fires in a lot of directions, but finds its way to a strong payoff; despite an underwhelming confrontation in its final moments, it arrives at a thoughtful epilogue that brings the drama full circle — and places it within the consistent fixation of Bong’s filmography: Life goes on, but the specter of bigger threats to Okja’s kind remain, far beyond the reaches of a single courageous girl. From his early comic-suspense films to his later spectacles, Bong’s movies deny the easy satisfaction of an overarching victory, instead suggesting that you can’t save a world that may have already doomed itself.
“Okja” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It will be released on Netflix on June 29.