How Jake Gyllenhaal’s Cartoonish ‘Okja’ Performance Makes This Super Pig More Lifelike

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Photo Source: Barry Wetcher

Philosopher Timothy Morton writes about the concept of the “strange stranger” to describe the mingling of familiarity and otherness that accompanies encounters between humans and nonhumans. Viewing “Okja,” the latest from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, it is difficult not to find oneself deeply invested in the emotional lives of the characters that populate it, human or otherwise.

In an early June interview with the acclaimed writer-director, he tells Backstage about the challenges faced in featuring a title character only realized in postproduction. Okja, a sentient, genetically modified “super pig” who resembles a hippo enlarged to the scale of prehistoric megafauna, is created in the American labs of Mirando, a fictitious multinational food corporation, to better serve the world’s hungry populace. The super pig is then raised in the lush, primeval mountains of South Korea, a pet and family member to the young Mija (An Seo-hyun). Ten years later, she is repossessed by Mirando and flown back to the United States for processing.

To achieve the staggering feat of creating a convincingly spirited and empathetic CGI character, Bong says he simply “went with the most trustworthy VFX supervisor,” referring to Oscar winner Erik De Boer, whose nuanced accomplishments include the Bengal tiger in “Life of Pi.”

READ: How to Believably Act Opposite a CGI Character

Portraying intimacy between human characters and the titular super pig was De Boer’s most formidable task because so much of the cast interacts with this gentle giant. To create believable relationships between actor and creature, De Boer was on set operating “stuffies,” movable foam puppet rigs that act as extensions of the character in the real space of the shoot. “[De Boer] is crazy about capturing animal realism,” Bong explains—and he’s right. There is an exquisite subtlety to Okja’s movements and facial expressions, from the twitch of her eye all the way to how she (humorously) defecates.

Though Okja is lifelike to the last pore and follicle, it is the expressiveness and complexity of the actors around her that truly bring the film to life. Bong observes that it was the oft-hyperbolic performances from Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and others that helped make the animated hero seem realistic to their world. Gyllenhaal’s tragicomic, gonzo portrayal of Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a washed-up TV zoologist attempting to revive his career as a corporate mascot, is particularly noteworthy. A figure who craves attention and harbors a drinking problem, there was “no choice but to have [Gyllenhaal] perform this character in a bombastic way.” But at the same time, subtleties the Oscar nominee brought to Wilcox aided Okja’s realism. “[We] noticed in postproduction that within Jake’s over-the-top performance are glimpses of fragility and shyness,” Bong recalls. When the doctor’s hand reverently grazes Okja’s flank in an early scene, he reveals himself to be “an animal lover having an honest reaction.”

In Okja’s move from South Korea to New York City, this Netflix original film fluctuates between gripping action, broad humor, and unsettlingly timely themes. Just as with his “Snowpiercer,” Bong’s “Okja” also excels as an allegorical social commentary—this time of the food production industry.

“The title character is food itself,” Bong says matter-of-factly. The film’s thematic examination of the food industry, factory farms, and genetic modification of livestock are made so much richer by scenes of Mija’s grandfather, Heebong (Byun Hee-bong), preparing a stew, carefully washing and drying vegetables before slipping them into a steaming pot. When corporate bigwig Lucy Mirando (Swinton) crunches shrink-wrapped sticks of her super pig jerky, the moment inversely mirrors Mija and her grandfather’s precise meal preparation. Bong says that the depiction of characters eating onscreen underscores and reveals deeper complexities of personality: “We eat three times a day, every day. It is the most routine thing: life itself.”

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