Love & Slaughter — Bong Joon-ho’s Okja

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.

Okja and Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn). Photo source.

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.

Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando and Seo-Hyun Ahn as Mija. Photo source.

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.

Seo-Hyun Ahn as Mija. Photo source

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.

Mija and Okja. Photo source.

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.

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TBH, I Expect More from People: a Word on Karlie Kloss + Vogue and Other Fools

I have to air this one out: there was a time, some ten years ago, when I would open my lunchbox in the cafeteria and kids would scream ‘eww’ and pinch their noses, waving at me to move away. First up, I eat where I want to eat. Second, I don’t know how their noses two blocks distance from me can smell something before I do. And third, the same fools now line up on Friday nights outside a Korean barbecue joint — one that Koreans whitewashed a bit for the full-price cash flow — talking about who discovered kimchi first; it’s been a week since they watched that Eater video on ‘How to Eat Korean Barbecue,’ and they’ve already got a checklist for authenticity. Seriously, for real?

But that’s personal (thanks for bearing with me as I air out childhood grievances). But this Vogue + Karlie Kloss, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, Steve Harvey being ridiculous more than usual, etc. etc. — this stuff is business.

Warning: The following image is disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.

Karlie Kloss

You cannot recreate Puccini’s Madama Butterfly which, I can’t believe this, is still being produced and staged to this day — in 2017 with impunity. The “Japan-themed” photoshoot is a testimony to the fact that our (North American) cultural mechanisms’ perception of Asia suffers from glaucoma — it is, after all, more than centuries old. They love to think about Japan, especially about its women, almost as much as Europe used to love fantasizing about the Orient and the harem. The cultural background behind the West’s obsession with geishas is both too disturbing and too long for these pages: it’s already been analyzed and proclaimed disgusting.

The Snake Charmer by Jean-Léon Gérôme

What I do want to share, however, is the frustration at the dearth of real creative interest in trying to present Asian cultures. I can believe, for a moment, that Vogue had a real genuine and good intentioned interest in representing what it thought to be beautiful in Japan. I can picture the Vogue pitch meeting or whatever they do there where everyone chimed, “This is like so diverse and beautiful.” So if you want to do something with the Japanese aesthetic in mind, why not do some goddamned research? Why not read a few books, say, on post-war Japanese history. If history is not your thing, maybe a bit of fiction? Something written by someone other than Murakami Haruki. Learn a few things about Shinto, about the Bubble, about the ways in which the nation’s socio-political context in the past decade has led to its current conservatism. Too much work? Then you shouldn’t want to ‘represent’ diversity via their ‘aesthetics.’ It’s a privilege to partake in another culture. And the privilege comes at a full price. 

The kimono half-way down Kloss’s shoulder is much like my eyelids drooping with boredom at the apparent narrow-mindedness and general lack of intellect and creativity in a multimillion dollar publication.

The same goes for you, Steve Harvey:

You have your own tv show and this is what you do? As a person of color with the rare opportunity of a platform with a large audience, you should know better. It hurts more when it comes from a person of color who, supposedly, shares similar experiences of racism, microagression, and cultural invisibility. And, what’s more, it’s just that much more embarrassing for Steve Harvey.

As for Tilda Swinton, if she can’t understand that though she lives somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, that she, whether she likes it or not, belongs to a larger cultural ethos and is not merely in it but participates in and extends it, she needs to rewatch all of Margaret Cho’s stand-up and take notes. And who signs off with ‘Much Love to You?’ Cho doesn’t even know you.

Why am I bringing up again what may seem like old news? Because the things is, I am tired of assessing which television show is good and which is bad, which outfit is an homage and which is appropriation, and which author is a thief and which an honored guest with a cultural library card of a sort. The sociological context in which creative works are produced need to change in order for us to have a healthier, more diverse, more entertaining, and truthful movies, shows, fashion, books, etc. The process certainly includes cultural criticism aimed at dismantling — albeit so often only figuratively — a value system that marginalizes a group of people. But it is going to take more than think pieces to truly move our culture forward. And we need the full intellectual and creative capacity of individuals and organizations like the above mentioned to do that. People, people like me who have thrived and suffocated in the gray areas of our cultural landscape, expect more from you.

Meanwhile, to all concerned’s annoyance, if I see something, I’m saying something.

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