[Movie Review] Friendship drives heartwarming satire film Okja
Famed auteur Bong Joon-ho’s (Snowpiercer, Mother) most recent film, Okja, is a modern fairy tale about a girl, her animal sidekick, and the greedy corporation that threatens to destroy their peaceful life together. The movie tackles corporate greed and the ethics of meat-eating in Bong’s trademark offbeat style, bursting with interesting characters and riveting performances. And while I found the film imperfect as a whole, I can see why the gorgeously filmed, engrossing adventure story has drawn acclaim.
The titular Okja is a genetically modified “super pig” with eyes full of intelligence and heart, a lumberingly adorable giant that looks like a cross between a pig and an elephant. She has a beautiful bond with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the little girl she has grown up alongside in the mountains of Gangwon-do. Their idyll is shattered when representatives of biotech business Mirando, which engineered the super pigs in the first place, arrive to reclaim their property from Mija’s grandfather, whom they had entrusted with raising Okja. Into the mix also comes animal rights group ALF, whose members initially appear to be heroes, but may not be quite the allies Mija is looking for.
The movie boasts an internationally acclaimed cast, including Tilda Swinton as the eccentric sociopath CEO of Mirando, Paul Dano and Steven Yeun as ALF members, and Jake Gyllenhaal as the has-been Crocodile Hunter type the company has hired to promote their super pig program. The standout for me, however, was Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija, who is fierce and brave and emotive in every scene. Her eyes say more in moments of silence than some of the adult actors do with copious amounts of dialogue, perfectly expressing her fear and rage and helplessness at this sudden ripping apart of her family. It’s clear that to her, Okja is an irreplaceable part of her little three-member household, and she’s willing to literally go to the ends of the earth to get her back.
The movie takes us on an epic journey from the mountains to Seoul across the globe to New York City, as Okja follows the path her makers had planned for her from birth, and Mija tries her very hardest to avert this encroaching fate and bring her best friend home. Along the way, viewers are faced with various distasteful steps in the progression of mass-produced meat, from the animal to our tables, and it’s an unsettling experience.
Bong explained in an interview, “Films either show animals as soulmates or else we see them in documentaries being butchered. I wanted to merge those worlds. The division makes us comfortable, but the reality is that they are the same animal.”
This intention is never clearer than in one scene where all the super pigs are enclosed in a giant slaughterhouse waiting for their end. It’s a haunting scene that remained with me after I finished the movie; as a viewer, I was forced to confront that these are all Okjas, identical to the animal that I’d seen as Mija’s friend, her pet, and a member of her family since the beginning of the movie.
Can human beings decide which animals should be eaten, and which are our companions? Do we even have the right to make that decision? I don’t think the film definitively answers those questions, or makes a clear statement in favor of vegetarianism, but Okja certainly exposes the harsh and inhumane realities of what you might call the meat industrial complex: genetically modified, mass-produced food in the service of profit over every other consideration—capitalism at its most extreme excess. Regardless of whether Okja and Mija get their happy ending, the specter of all those poor pigs remains, and its relevance to the animals who live and die in similar conditions in order to stock our supermarkets is inescapable.
Still, despite its dark subject matter, I wouldn’t exactly call the film depressing; it’s visually stunning, and delightfully weird. Bong Joon-ho made Okja with Netflix after numerous other studios rejected it, and despite the partnership leading to a bit of a kerfuffle at Cannes that will probably hurt its awards chances, the artistic freedom Bong was allowed clearly did the movie good. The camera lovingly captures its human and animal subjects, and the settings seem to nearly come alive, from the wildly beautiful mountains in Gangwon-do to the fantastical pageantry of a New York street parade.
In the center of all this is Mija, who bravely fights for the pig she loves, the friend she can communicate best with, even if to outsiders it seems that they can’t possibly speak the same language. Ahn Seo-hyun blew me away with her performance, standing equal with every adult actor in this film, even Tilda Swinton, who often seems to overwhelm the other characters with her weird and powerful charisma. I’m not sure if skin-crawlingly uncomfortable was what Swinton was going for with this role, but if so, her performance was flawless. She embodies perfectly the duality of corporations like Mirando, whose overweening arrogance and relentless greed often hide under shiny, wholesome packaging, especially in the age of social media, when one viral video clip can ruin a business.
Mija is practically a superhero, even executing some serious action scenes flawlessly and believably—the movie has surreal moments but stays grounded in reality, and its darker themes coexist well with the sense of whimsy that Bong infuses throughout. Okja, too, is a miraculously realized technical marvel; there is real love and pain and awareness in those eyes, and watching her, I completely forgot that the super pig wasn’t actually there. (Ahn, too, does incredibly well in giving the impression that she’s interacting with a real, living creature.)
Unfortunately, apart from Ahn and Swinton, and to an extent Jake Gyllenhaal, who does well in his small part as a perpetually sozzled, miserable sell-out of an animal scientist, the talented cast are given very little to do. Apart from those I mentioned above—whose characters are given little to no development—we also have Choi Woo-shik, Yoon Je-moon and Giancarlo Esposito in almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it roles. Bong Joon-ho of course has the clout (and Netflix has the dollars) to cast these high-caliber actors, but they ended up being an embarrassment of riches that the film couldn’t fully take advantage of.
I think that applies to the film as a whole, as well; its themes of corporate greed, animal rights, dishonest marketing and the gullibility of the consumer, and the bond between an orphaned girl and her animal sidekick were all interesting, but perhaps too much for one movie. Despite some incredibly vivid, dynamic scenes, especially those early ones set in the mountains and city streets of Korea, the film ultimately left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. I didn’t quite fall in love with Okja as a whole the way I did with Mija and Okja as a pair. Still, theirs is a friendship for the ages, and that alone makes the movie worth watching.