Whatever else is true of Bong Joon-ho's filmography as late, I'm glad that we have one filmmaker in the business of treating global capitalism as cartoonishly evil in madcap genre films that have the approximate rationality of 1960s European comic books. Okja, Bong's latest film isn't as visually brazen & thus not as successful as Snowpiercer (your mileage may vary on how good the very divisive Snowpiercer is, but I apologise for nothing), and it's not as sensitive and clever in gliding between politics, emotions, and storytelling as The Host, the Bong film it most resembles in most ways. But that's pretty much the only context in which I can imagine finding the film even a little bit disappointing: while it's messy as hell and has large problems navigating between its first and second halves, this is the kind of film whose failures are solely the result of too much ambition, and whose successes are magical.

The plot seems to get very convoluted, but it's really just a few ingredients: Mija (An Seo-Hyun) is a girl who lives with her farmer grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong, also of The Host) high up on a mountain in South Korea; there they take care of Okja, one of the very special super-pigs handed out by global agribusiness firm Mirando - all similarities to Monsanto clearly intentional - back in 2007 as part of a public-relations stunt. As the conclusion to this stunt, Mirando has recalled Okja, declaring her to be the most adorable and successful of all the superpigs, and in so doing, the company hopes to put a smiling face on their new line of genetic abominations. The issue being that Mija has very little interest at all in letting Okja go to be photographed, slaughtered, and eaten, and so she chases the Mirando representatives to Seoul, where she crosses paths with the Animal Liberation Front, working to destablise Mirando on their own. So off to New York everybody goes: the bloodless capitalists and the dopey terrorists and the very righteous, very pissed-off preteen.

The simple way to think about the film's strength and relative reasons is that the further it goes from rural Korea, the weaker it gets. There are a great many tones at play in the film, and most of them work, though the bucolic pastorale of Mija and Okja wandering around the mountain almost unquestionably works the best. It is, to be sure, central to what Okja is aiming for to have this enormously appealing leg of the film get boorishly interrupted. The film even makes a joke of it: the first time that washed-up TV science personality Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets a look at Okja, the incidental music turns glowy and sparkly and pure Spielberg, as the scene unabashedly cribs from Jurassic Park. And then the music dies off without so much as a whimper as Wilcox demands that the Mirando people take the fucking picture.

In other words, Okja does want us to respond most strongly to the rural scenes, so that we'll feel the sting when the forces of industrial-scale food production come along to spoil them. That's not the problem; the problem is that the precision and perfection of those scenes isn't matched with equal precision in the broader, more satiric portions. If I can return to Snowpiercer for a moment: that film worked because everybody and everything in it was blatantly unreal. In Okja, the Mirando folks, and the ALF terrorists, are just as blatantly unreal, but Mija isn't - she's 100% authentic and true to life, and if you can be generous with some of the compositing that leaves the super-pig floating atop the image rather than interacting with it, Okja is as well. The Mirando material has a lot of zest to it, and it's delicious watching Tilda Swinton playing the creepily enthusiastic, cheerful public face of a company hoping to cynically paint itself with a coat of "fun progressivism" green while altering its core behaviors not at all. But it's not one of Swinton's better performances (she's much more impressive in a secondary role that she takes up near the end of the film, in fact), and the satire is decidedly broad. Nor, for a certainty, is the film helped out by Gyllenhaal's profoundly energetic, unhinged performance as a sweaty, shriekingly positive fame whore. I'll say this for him: you absolutely don't see a trace of Gyllenhaal in there. But that doesn't make it good, just demoniacally committed, and I think it's fair to say that Wilcox is such an abrasive, impossible cartoon that he's personally responsible for pushing the film over whatever top Snowpiercer managed to remain below.

But here I am, complaining about such a dazzling mixture of sweetness, weirdness, and pitch-black misery. It's a wild, chaotic swirl, and it's not entirely cohesive, though the arc of the film steadily towards more and more bleakness generally works in smoothing out the biggest tonal shifts. My dismayed response to Gyllenhaal remains pure, but there's no sense in which any of this is looking to be subtle. It's all about big leaps from one thickly-applied emotion to the next, carried off with Bong's extreme confidence in the cinematic appeal of his material. On a scene-by-scene basis, everything here is perfection: the countdown to the showdown at Mirando's gaudy press conference is a tight thriller, the last act is full of scenes of stockyard animals suffering that are stomach-churning (the film doesn't want you to go vegan, but it sure as hell wants you to eat local, let's say). There's a satisfyingly long car chase that includes some absolutely terrific wow! moments, with perfectly-timed stunts involving a low tunnel. It's a lot of ground to cover, and it takes Okja visible effort to cover all of it, but the resulting sprawl is intoxicating, if you're anywhere near Bong's wavelength, where sensory overload comes first, and the intellectual uptake of what his images and scenes are trying to tell you comes in the wake of that overload. Certainly Okja is a sloppy, kludged-together affair, but it desperately wants us to care about each and every moment, from the sublime of Okja's panicked race through Seoul to the ridiculous of Gyllenhaal opening his mouth and saying anything, ever.

The glue that holds this all together, unsurprisingly, is An: I'm not up to the challenge of judging child performers in a language I don't speak, but her unyielding screen presence, at least, is the granite boulder on which Okja founds itself. It's no accident that the film spend all of its time in the early going building up Mija and Okja's relationship, or that said relationship is the most convincing, emotionally engaging part of the movie: everything else that happens in the plot hinges on our feeling, very intensely, the stakes of Mija's quest. And make no mistake, those are the stakes, despite the film's grandiose satiric intent. Insofar as Okja is a great film rather than a fascinating, captivating debacle, it's because we're so willing to believe in the pretty-good-not-great visual effect playing the title character, and feel genuine horror at the thought of her suffering, and that's all because of the bucolic gentleness of those opening scenes, and An's straightforward, strong emotions, standing out in bold relief on her face. There's much to love in the film's design, its cinematography, its disturbingly black comedy, and its verve, but the Okja-Mija relationship is the engine driving everything, and the reason why something so outlandish and cartoonish turns out, in its subdued final scenes, to be so damn moving.