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[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.

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This was a cute movie. My 10 year old brother was so shook by this film that he's become a vegetarian!

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That’s what happened to me after watching ‘Babe’! I’ve been vegetarian since.

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I'm too scared to watch this movie. I was almost too scared to read the review! But very nicely done, Laica. Hope more movie reviews to come.

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I definitely recommend giving this movie a try! There are a quiet bit of scenes that will break your heart but it also has it’s funny moments like anything to do with the over the top animal activist group.

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I somewhat dislike movies that are preachy in any capacity. Which is why I haven't given in to watching this, even though it's the first thing that pops up in my "because you watched..." list on Netflix. Thank you for your take on this Laica. I still don't know if I'll see it, but at least I feel a little more educated in discussing it if I ever have to.

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I'd say it's more of a clever and quirky commentary of all sides, rather than preachy! It definitely shows members of the animal rights group disregarding care and ethics toward their fellow humans, which I thought was very thought provoking (I've seen such people in real life!)

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Well thanks for the wonderful review, I really needed it.
I kept avoiding the movie at every chance. But now, here I go.

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I have a copy of this in my hard drive for months now but havent seen it yet. I'm actually afraid to. I'm scared I might turn vegan. There is nothing wrong with being vegan but it's just not me. You get what I mean?

Most of the reviews I have heard & read were positive and glad that Netflix gave Bong Joon Ho the platform to share his vision with the world after so many setbacks.

We have had Prof. Ueno & Hachiko, Jesse & Willy and now, Mija & Okja.

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YES! I LOVE THIS MOVIE!

I almost didn't want eat pork after this. :( But bacon :(

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Thanks foe this review, Laica. I like this movie a lot despite not being perfect especially many over the top characters. And didn't expect to shed so many tears with the movie staying in mind long after the viewing. The best is indeed the relationship between Mina and okja as you said.

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"Can human beings decide which animals should be eaten, and which are our companions? Do we even have the right to make that decision?"
Didn't watch the movie,but I so much love this intelligent sentence of yours.
Vegetarianism has always been a sensitive subject,and it always will be. I'm not in a place to debate on that topic. But I'd love to add something about me here.
I'm not a vegetarian,and don't think I'll ever be able to. I'm a food LOVER, and also a girl who loves trying almost all the kinds of food. I love the feel of proper taste in my mouth,and inevitably likes(not love) meat,especially fish.
However,I'm aware of the fact that my simple desire costs the very life of another living being. I've seen many, even some of my friends become vegetarian,even vegan all of a sudden after watching some movie,reading a book or listening to lectures. They hard-core became devoted to veggies,but alas! Few weeks later,many were back to the usual lifestyle,sometimes 10times happily eating meat to make up to the "lost-time".
I've heard some say human's love for meat came from the barbaric cave life we led in the ancient times, I don't know what is the truth. But what I observed was,that we,the usual common humans simply love tasty food and thus cannot easily let go of one of the most tasty components of our plate,not for long unless that person has a reaaally strong will. So, what I think that we can do from our part is,to understand both our desires and the desire of another living creature( to live) and keep both in balance.
As I said before, the food loving me won't ever be able to be a vegetarian,but I always try,sometimes fail but nonetheless try to tamper my such desires down.
I find/make/eat the vegan dishes made in the tastiest way, and finally when I feel that I want to taste some meat too,I give in to that, like once in two weeks and bring home some. I give into when such delicacies are unavoidable and simply wiggled in front of your face such as parties and buffets. And when I do that ,it seems to taste better than usual simply because I held in and it's enough to keep me for sometimes a whole month!
It's been years and I've been successful so far, of course more than the friends who stayed vegan for few days. And I so much respect the people that became successful in becoming vegetarian/ vegan.

Do I sound morbid? Ridiculous? Immature?
However,thanks Laica ,for the post that made me write this who-thought-that-I-would-write-a-thing-like- this-on-a- kdrama-discussion-site thing.😅

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Thank you for sharing your opinion. And don't discredit your thoughts, they are not immature at all. I'm in the same situation as your's. However, I need to address something here, that belongs to my field of research. I find those who are vegetarian/vegan very brave, and I'm proud of them. But being a vegetarian/vegan is a luxury of the 21st century. I'm not saying as something bad, but we have many resources now that allows us to stop eating meat/fish for the rest of our lives. However, eating meat is part of our evolutionary path to Homo sapiens. Eating meat gave lots of protein/energy to keep on living, and it has been proved that meat and cooked meals played an important role in Human Evolution. Eating meat is still very present on the lives of carnivorous animals, and eating just leaves/frut/grass won't allow for their survival, as their body and genetics needs specific resources to keep them alive. The same as our kind, but as a cultural race we managed to find solutions over time, and what I think its wrong now is the inhumane and horrible ways to increase livestock at insane speed, when we "now" don't necessarily need those resources "everyday" to live. It's the way it's handle for the masses that's wrong, absoluty wrong, but I don't condemn eating meat as it played a huge part in the survival of our species. And if everything changes again (adrupt climate change for ex) meat will play a very important role again in our survival, and those who don't comply can't possible survive, because as Darwin said only those who better adapt to new circumstance are the ones who aquire new characterists to survive and give way to the continuity of the species...

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I appreciate your comments. I read that Bong Joon Ho wasn't trying to turn everyone into a vegetarian, or pass judgement on those who eat meat (he does too again!) He wanted everyone to understand and accept the reality of the system and the lives that eating meat comes from, rather than shut off and shut out the connection as many do. I see that you are a also a very aware consumer. It shows in the film, Big Agriculture brings both good and also very bad things with it. I think it is both difficult and important for us to be aware of the processes that all of our products, not just food, comes from!

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Highly recommended movie. Funny and heartwarming.

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This was a Korean production I could finally watch with my fella. As he's a mega-vegan and I'm a very vegetarian K-drama and film (and animal!) lover, he actually suggested it to me. I have read reviews saying this film couldn't decide if it was meant as a children's adventure film or adult indie cult production, as it straddles the border between the realms of Free Willy and Thank You for Smoking. One called it "Beethoven with Bacon!" I thought it was very clever.

Bong Joon Ho has said he wasn't out to convert the world, but that he wanted to show the industries for what they are. He actually did research in slaughterhouses that moved him so that he became vegan after, temporarily. My boyfriend said the slaughterhouse scenes very accurately portrayed exactly what it's like (I can't bring myself to watch any of the real footage of that!) I like Bong Joon Ho made commentary of all sides, animal rights, GMOs, Monsanto and corporate greed, taking advantage of small farmers, and also the extreme activists groups. It was sweet, strange, fun, and disturbing all at once.

Now when we see meat we sometimes refer to it as "Okja!!!"

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