When we talk about animals in movies, there are usually two images that come to mind: a best friend, like My Dog Skip or Marley and Me, and a dangerous predator à la Jaws. Our fictional images of them reflect our relationships with them. They are our companions or our aggressors. They are our downfall or our victims.
In the case of Okja, they fall into the latter category.
Bong Joon-ho’s latest is a strange fable of animal companionship. Babe but set in a world on the brink of rule by Orwellian-esque conglomerates. But instead of being separate from reality, Okja is based on a premise terribly close to where we find ourselves now: searching for a way to feed a booming population while reducing our carbon footprint on the planet. The solution? Genetically-modified organisms. A multi-national chemical company called Mirando Corporation has created the answer to everyone’s prayers: giant mammals called superpigs that are cute, leave minimal carbon footprint, and will apparently taste delicious once they reach full growth and are harvested for their meat. Coinciding with the announcement of this miracle pig, the Mirando Corporation also beings a ten-year contest, where farmers around the world will raise 23 of the babies to determine one winner as the best superpig.
One farmer in South Korea is given a superpig. The superpig is given the name Okja and grows up with a girl named Mija.
The majority of the movie revolves around Mija’s quest to save Okja from the Mirando Corporation, but along the way Bong delivers so much satire that you could pick and choose where you want to read it. Biting social commentary is a bit a signature for Bong. We also saw it in the fantastic post-apocalyptic film Snowpiercer, in which a class system emerges on a train driving non-stop around a frozen earth. In Okja, the first target is companies such as the Mirando Corporation, who create gimmicky campaigns and contests to detract from the harm their company may actually cause. The second target is us, people who cry fear of GMOs but are able to shut down those concerns for delicious, questionably sourced food constantly. The parallels are undeniable, especially since Okja doesn’t take place in a vague future like Snowpiercer does. It is set in today. Literally now, in 2017, and while the conditions Okja is placed in the movie are purposefully manipulated to draw maximum sympathy, the similarities between the conditions in Okja and those within our current factory farming cannot be denied.
We get to know Okja. The huge mammal is, in a word, odd and, in another, adorable. Within the first few minutes of the film you’re able to get over the fact you’re seeing a giant, CGI, hippo-pig hybrid-thing on your small laptop screen. After that, you love her. Okja’s animation is stunning. Every movement she makes, every twitch and blink, is placed with such precision and detail. It seems as though some of her mannerisms are dog-like, while her eyes express human-like intelligence and emotion. It’s easy to get attached, both to her and Mija, played by the outstanding Seo-Hyun Ahn.
While Okja the animal is marvellous, Seo-Hyun Ahn is the true star of the show. She gives a performance that, in my opinion, is more notable than Tilda Swinton’s turn as the high-strung CEO of Mirando Corporation, or Jake Gyllenhaal’s as a boozy, washed-up nature show host. I could watch a two-hour film of just Mija and Okja in the South Korean mountains without a problem. Bong takes his time in the Korea sequences, making use of the gorgeous landscape. These shots are languid and soft, but as soon as the story moves to Seoul and New York, the cinematography takes on the same frenetic pace as the plot. Bong makes use of everything within a scene: from a young woman taking a selfie while a giant pig is chased through a mall to the employees in a corporate office being totally duplicitous but also blindly faithful. The potential for satire is enormous and Bong gladly delivers.
Okja is a surprising movie in a number of ways. There are shocking moments of violence and cruelty, gleefully dry and dark humour, and a conclusion in which no one turns out to be “the good guys” except Mija and Okja. There is a clear divide between “them” (Mirando) and “us” (Mija and the Animal Liberation Front), but the animal rights activists don’t emerge entirely unscathed either, with moments of hypocrisy, deceit, and self-righteousness within the group. Mija and Okja are the true heroes of the story and to the audience, the most redeemable characters. There’s a possible reading into that, the idea that only animals and children are safe from the inevitable selfishness and violence that plague humanity.
Okja is full of meaning and criticism. It makes judgements on our current ways of life and questions how we got to this point of resource depletion, the ethics of factory farming where animals are put under conditions that are terrible at best. Okja doesn’t offer any answers or solutions, but it makes you think and that in and of itself is an achievement. It’ll entertain you, just like any movie should and needs to in order to be seen. That being said, once you turn on Okja, it’s hard to turn it off, and it’s hard to forget both the giant superpig and everything she represents.