Written by Jon Ronson & Bong Joon Ho
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho
In 2007, Lucy Mirando, heir to the problematic Mirando Corporation announced the discovery of a new animal, superpigs. These miracle animals appear to be the world’s answer to the problem of hunger, and the 26 best are sent around the world to be raised by varying farming cultures in a bid to figure out how best to raise them. One of these superpigs, Okja ends up in South Korea raised by an old man and his granddaughter Mija. Jump to ten years later, and Mirando is calling in all the pigs for a contest that will kick off superpig meat coming to a store near you. These means Okja will be taken away, sent off to New York for “processing.” Mija is having none of this and sets off to reclaim Okja, unaware she is about to uncover the dark secret behind the Mirando corporation.
I am a huge fan of Bong Joon-Ho and got there without realizing it. Starting in the late 2000s, I began to notice a lot of buzz surrounding South Korean cinema. The more I watched, the more I loved it. There’s a certain fresh take the eyes of a lot of South Korean directors have that make their work more vibrant than a lot of Hollywood films. When it comes to Bong, I started with his most acclaimed film at the time The Host and knew immediately that I loved this director. After that, I sought out Memories of Murder and Mother, the latter of which is one of the best crime/investigation films I’ve ever seen and is able to capture the essence of Hitchcock better than a lot of imitators. Snowpiercer was an incredible leap forward in scope for Bong and had me excited to see what he produced next.
Okja is not a film that follows the straight formulaic narrative you are expecting. The first 45 minutes seem to be following a standard structure, but once Okja is taken, there are some interesting shifts in tone. The film has great moments of slapstick, and in its latter half, there’s some genuine traumatic horror. In many ways, it’s similar to Snowpiercer which had similar satirical elements that ranged from absurdist comedy to revulsion and horror. This balance of tones was referred to by one critic as “E.T. by way of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle” which is about as apt a description for Okja I’ve heard.
The weight of the film rests on the shoulders of young An Seo-hyun, a Korean television child actor, who was given great freedom to develop Mija by the director. She relates stories in interviews of rattling off extensive ideas and backstory motivation that had Bong Joon Ho paying rapt attention and writing her input down to incorporate into the film. She plays Mija with determination and dedication to her friend, Okja, a creature she was raised alongside for ten years. Part of the multilingual nature of the film forces actors who don’t fluently speak each other’s language to react with genuine emotion. Seo-hyun has mastered that non-verbal acting without becoming hammy in her reactions. Every look and response feel real at the moment.
Supporting An Seo-Hyun is an incredibly strong cast: Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeung, Shirley Henderson, Lily Collins, and more. Swinton takes on dual roles of Lucy and Nancy Mirando, both corporate sociopaths with Lucy trying to create a warm, loving image of her company. One point she attempts to justify the horrors surrounding the superpigs as a needed evil to feed the world. Nancy, on the other hand, sees no value in human emotion or the pain of others and serves as a perfect example of late-stage American capitalism. Working as the face of the superpigs is Jake Gyllenhaal as Johnny Wilcox. Wilcox is a demented version of every celebrity animal handler you’ve seen on the Tonight Show or Discovery Channel. It’s safe to say this performance by Gyllenhaal is completely unhinged and I suspect it will be a pretty big point of division for people who watch the film. I personally love the insanity of it because at the midpoint this madness turns to pure psychopathy as we arrive at the laboratories of Mirando where Wilcox is allowed to “experiment.”
Paul Dano plays the leader of the Animal Liberation Front, a group of eco-terrorists Bong uses to comment on how the entire issues of animal rights and GMO food is not an easy black and white issue. The ALF devotes themselves to nonviolence but then use violence while apologizing and saying they wish they didn’t have to do this. When Dano learns one of his people lied to further their cause he strikes and kicks the person till they are a crumpled heap on the ground. Another member has chosen to eat nothing, claiming that he wants the smallest carbon footprint on Earth. He ends up being the first member to get taken down by Blackwater-esque private security forces. I really appreciated how the film doesn’t choose a straight down the reductive middle look at the topics it covers. Instead, you are left asking a lot of questions about your own relationship with meat and food.
Okja is a fantastic film for Netflix to have gotten and signals a big move towards their competition with traditional movie theaters. The Cannes Film Festival judges voiced their dissatisfaction with Okja’s Netflix exclusivity. They claim that online platforms do damage to movie houses. I would argue that Netflix allows people who live in rural, excluded areas a chance to see films that won’t play at the nearest movie megaplex. It will expose them to a greater swath of cinema which is always a good thing.