Meet “Okja.” The title character of the new film from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho is a marvel of contemporary technical wizardry and old-fashioned cuddliness, a CG fantasy mix of pig, puppy and hippo that makes for a genuinely lovable creature.
The unassumingly revolutionary movie that bears her name is sensitively attuned to its moment, pushing the boundaries of contemporary storytelling and image-making with an adventuresome derring-do, subversive sensibility and a playful, peaceful core.
With “Okja,” Bong further proves himself as one of the most exciting filmmakers in the world, capable of making multinational, multilingual stories that acknowledge cultural differences while also exploring shared values and an essential sense of human connection. As in earlier films such as “The Host” and “Snowpiercer,” Bong is a complete master of tone, able to shift sharply between comedy, emotion and action while never feeling out of control.
As the movie opens, industrial executive Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, who also plays her twin sister, Nancy) holds a lavish press conference in a decaying, disused factory owned by her family’s agrochemical company, hoping to rebrand from makers of napalm to eco-friendly products. A contest is being held in which “superpiglets” are being given to farmers all around the world. The action picks up 10 years later with Mija (the dynamic youngster An Seo Hyun) and her grandfather having raised Okja, their personal superpiglet now grown to an enormous size.
In many ways the film comes on like a children’s story, with scenes of Mija and Okja in an idyllic forest capturing in live-action the same sense of wonder as Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro”), whom Bong has acknowledged as an influence, before the action takes increasingly ominous, darker turns. (Parents be warned: Okja undergoes some genuinely horrifying treatment at the hands of her corporate captors, as do other animals.) Inventively shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, who also photographed this year’s lush “The Lost City of Z,” the movie moves from a muted naturalism to garish artificiality with a cohesive ease.
Okja the character is a digital creation, thanks to the work of visual effects supervisor Erik-Jan De Boer, whose previous work includes “Life of Pi” and “Babe: Pig in the City.” Yet Okja seems so real — a moment when she and Mija roll over in tandem while napping is astonishing — thanks not only to the effects work but also An’s sweet, responsive performance, a mixture of wide-eyed and worldly. Throughout the story Bong, who shares writing credit with Jon Ronson, deftly explores the complex relationship that develops between a pet and its caretaker, a mix of friend, sibling and parent.
When Mija realizes that Okja has been taken back by the Mirando Corp., her journey from the remote countryside to Seoul kicks off the most rollicking sequence in the film, a bursting spectacle of adventure. She busts through a plate-glass window, daringly chases down a truck on foot and narrowly avoids multiple imminent hazards — Mija is the movie’s unstoppable hero, and her superpower is simply herself, the purity of her friendship and her desire to set things right.
As the sequence progresses, a group of animal rights activists led by Jay (Paul Dano) attempt to hijack Okja for their own purposes. This leads to a slapstick chase through an underground shopping center, Okja tromping through stores like she is still racing through the forest. A series of reveals clarifies the true nature of Mirando’s plans, with Mija’s only goal being to get Okja back to their mountain home.
Besides An and Swinton, the film is full of sparkling, witty performances. Dano is enigmatic and dashing as an eco-warrior, while Jake Gyllenhaal is outrageous as a television presenter who senses his star is dimming. Lily Collins, Steven Yeun, Byun Heebong, Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Henderson and Woo Shik Choi all shine in supporting roles.
Much has been made of the fact the movie was financed by Netflix, causing no small amount of controversy and conversation when “Okja” premiered recently at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is getting only a limited theatrical release in the U.S. — though Los Angeles residents will have the luxury treat of a 35-millimeter run at the local New Beverly Cinema Sunday-July 8 — and will be available exclusively via the online streaming platform in many locations around the globe.
Perhaps the greatest of the many sly jokes in the movie is that Bong and his producers — among them the production company Plan B, behind Oscar winners “Moonlight” and “12 Years a Slave” — got a self-styled disruptor like Netflix to pay tens of millions of dollars to make a movie that encourages distrust of the motivations of corporations. In particular, the movie cautions extra suspicion for any companies that make themselves out as avatars of positive change, a warning against the fake woke.
With his latest work, Bong has created a heroine for our times, an indelible movie creature, a story that balances heart and head and a movie that engages with the boundaries of technology both on-screen and off. (And stay seated for a post-credits tag that teases of more.)
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: iPic, Westwood and Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica