When Korean director Bong Joon-ho first entered the big-scale fantasy realm, he unleashed the Seoul-invading monster of The Host (2006). When he returned to it for Snowpiercer (2013), he and actress Tilda Swinton created a uniquely striking villain in autocratic Minister Mason. They’re back together for Netflix’s Okja, which features another oversized but much friendlier beast and a dual role for Swinton.
Debuting on the streaming service and in select theaters June 28, Okja centers on the eponymous, hippopotamus-sized genetically bred pig, one of many bred as a food source by the Mirando Corporation. As a publicity gimmick, a number of them were sent out to be raised on farms around the world, and we first meet Okja living an idyllic existence in the Korean mountains, the beloved pet and best friend of orphaned young Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun). When Mirando reps reclaim Okja and transport her to New York City to meet her destiny as dinner, Mija follows, determined to bring her home—an odyssey that brings her in contact with an equally committed band of animal-rights activists and relentlessly chipper, image-obsessed company CEO Lucy Mirando (Swinton)—and her nastier sister Nancy (also Swinton).
“I’m always drawn into creature films,” Bong says. “They are very effective tools to create social commentary, to give insights into the world we live in. However, in The Host, the creature was a monster that attacks people, but in Okja, it is a very intimate friend of the protagonist, Mija.” The director, who scripted the film with Jon Ronson, had specific reasons to model Okja after a pig: “I think that there’s no better animal that humans associate with food—there’s ham, sausage, jerky, etc. But in reality, pigs are very delicate, sophisticated and smart, and also clean. The two perspectives we have when we look at animals are all coalesced inside a pig: one is the way we look at animals as our family and friends, as pets, and the other is when we look at animals as food. In our everyday lives, people try to separate these two universes apart—we play with our pets by day, and at night we have a steak dinner. In this film, we tried to merge these two universes together and create a sense of discomfort.”
Swinton was aware of the project from its very early conception, and signed on as a co-producer. “I was privileged to be a part of the cloud of the idea before it ever came to script stage,” she says. “I remember very clearly, director Bong, when we went to Seoul for the premiere of Snowpiercer, he drove us to the airport the following day, and leaned over the back of the seat of the car and showed me this drawing of the pig and the girl, and that was it. That was three years before there was a script. But even before that moment, one of the bonds we share is a great love of the work of the master Hayao Miyazaki, in particular My Neighbor Totoro. In fact, we regularly sing the Totoro theme tune to each other; it’s this sort of thing we do. And the second I saw this drawing, I saw an opportunity to fill in that homage. Also, we talked about the twin sisters in Spirited Away, which I believe was a seed of the Mirando sisters.”
In both her films for Bong, Swinton has taken an over-the-top yet consistent approach to her characters. She sees a kinship between her parts in Okja and Snowpiercer, recalling that in the latter, “We whipped up this insane burlesque with Mason, who was supposed to be beyond any reality—but as it happens, it seemed we were behind the curve. With Okja, we wanted to come at the idea of a fool/clown villain in a slightly different way. We wanted to find the different faces of high capitalism and exploitation, and decided to split it, [in a way that was] schizophrenic.
“I sometimes wonder whether there are two people here,” she continues, “or whether actually there isn’t one, because let’s face it, when Lucy fades away, Nancy appears and vice versa. We wanted to look at two different ways of messing the world up. So we have Nancy, who doesn’t fall far from the tree of their toxic, horrendous father, and then Lucy, who’s so determined to be different; she’s driving 180 degrees away from Nancy, and trying to be all user-friendly and woke and squeaky-clean and lovable. It was an opportunity to look at these two different faces, but I suppose, especially when you work together in collaboration over different projects, the conversation is kind of the same one that just evolves and goes into a whole new area. So, all sorts of discussions we had about Mason just sort of moved into discussions about the Mirandos.”
To create Okja’s title character, Bong called on visual effects supervisor Erik De Boer, an Oscar-winner for Richard Parker the tiger and the other digital illusions in Life of Pi. Once again, he and his team were challenged to photorealistically bring the protagonist and a nonhuman co-star together. Mija and Okja, Bong notes, “live and sleep together, they hug each other, they have a lot of interaction. Because of this, it required a lot of cutting-edge visual effects work. Erik De Boer did such a wonderful job. It looks so real in the movie, and I’m really happy with [the early] reactions; some people really want to live with Okja. ‘I wish I had Okja in my house’—those are the comments that I’ve gotten. I worked with Erik for over a year, striving for animal realism, and whenever I’ve heard those kinds of comments, it makes me very happy. If it had been a cartoonish character, we couldn’t have drawn those kinds of emotions; you have to be looking at something very realistic to spur those kinds of responses.”