*This review discusses major plot points, all of which are after the page break. You've been warned.*
While the film itself certainly can't be faulted for the controversies surround its exhibition, it is fitting that Okja is under scrutiny for the effects of late capitalism. The film is, essentially, a critique of late capitalism dressed up as a charming story of a young girl and her pet genetically-modified "super-pig." The girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), is the granddaughter of a Korean farmer who was one of 24 global recipients of a "super-piglet" from the Mirando Corporation, a chemical company-turned-agricultural giant run by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton). Lucy plans to unveil the super-pigs through a "best pig" competition that presents the creature as a locally-sourced, completely natural organism that is environmentally friendly to boot, rather than the factory-grown-and-slaughtered GMOs going into the company's new sausages. Mija's pig, Okja, is selected by the company's Steve Irwin-esque celebrity spokesman Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) as the best pig, and so Okja is off to New York for the public unveiling. Mija follows her beloved pet and, with the help of the Animal Liberation Front, attempts to rescue Okja and expose the truth behind Mirando's super-pigs.
As in Bong's previous feature, Snowpiercer, Okja juggles multiple ideas and tones throughout its two-hour running time. He is not quite as successful at pulling off that trick as he has been in the past, but Okja is nonetheless a fascinating satire of globalized capitalism.
The "globalized" point is one of the more fascinating ideas that Bong has explored in his career. Nearly all of his films, including his most well-known, The Host (2006), have touched on both the positive and negative effects of globalization to some extent. Snowpiercer marked the most notable shift in his perspective, since the film itself was an international co-production and featured a cast of actors from around the world. Okja is an extension of that production system: an international co-production with a global streaming giant, featuring an eclectic cast of Korean, American, and British actors. In this film, Bong does not appear to be too perturbed by the effects of a globalized world; in fact, the deleterious effects of Mirando's extensive reach and shady involvement in international conflicts (similar to a certain real multi-national agro-chemical corporation's history with Agent Orange) barely register with the filmmaker. This feels like a missed opportunity for the filmmaker, especially considering a brief scene that recreates the famous Pete Souza photograph of the White House "Situation Room" darkly implies where true power lies in the current global order.
Satirically, Bong fares better when his target is the profiteering machinations of capitalism and the effectiveness of activism. Snowpiercer was significant for the cynical eye Bong cast on populist revolutions, and that cynicism permeates the film's portrayal of Lucy as a "friendly" CEO supposedly as dedicated to protecting people and the planet as profit margins. Bong undercuts Lucy's positivity by introducing her twin sister, Nancy (also Swinton), as her ruthless predecessor. In an interview with The A.V. Club, Swinton and Bong refer to the characters as "the twin faces of capitalism," and through Swinton's reliably nimble performance they easily function as two sides of the same efficiency-minded coin. The Animal Liberation Front, on the other hand, is certainly on Mija's side, but fail to be much help: they bicker about the proper ideological stances in the face of a powerful, unified adversary (sound familiar?) and, despite successfully revealing footage of the abuses the pigs endure, seemingly fail to enact change. In fact, Mija rescues Okja from slaughter by engaging in a negotiation any true capitalist will appreciate: buying her from Nancy with a golden pig given to her by her grandfather. Only Okja is spared from this fate, however; presumably, Mirando's super-pigs will be consumed around the world by a customer base blissfully ignorant or indifferent toward the corporation's sins.
Of course, there is a certain irony that comes with a film this critical of capitalism being produced and distributed by a corporation with tendrils in every corner of the globe and, as established in the first paragraph, a history of undermining the regulations of other countries to suit its own business needs. Okja takes a complicated, cynical look at capitalism, and even if it isn't one of Bong's most successful films, it still raises some important questions while providing a heartwarming vehicle for those questions.