Okja (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Rahul Hamid
Produced by Sed Sarandos, Lewis Taekwan Kim, Dooho Choi,,Wook Sik Seo, and Bong Joon Ho; directed by Bong Joon Ho; written by Bong Joon Ho and Jon Ronson; cinematography by Darius Khondji; edited by Meeyeon Han, Yang Jinmo; music by Jemmas Burns and Jaeil Jung; production design by Ha-jun Lee and Kevin Thompson; casting by Jenny Jue; starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik Choi, Giancarlo Esposito, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Color, with English dialogue and Korean dialogue with English subtitles, 118 min. A Netflix Original Film.
Bong Joon Ho’s Okja is a movie that crosses many boundaries. It is one of the first films by a major director to be released by a streaming service. Bong turned to Netflix to produce his latest film after becoming disenchanted with the traditional distribution companies’ handling of his last film, Snowpiercer. The Netflix logo was booed at Okja’s premiere at Cannes by diehards who believed that films screened at the festival should only be theatrical releases. In the end, the controversy probably inspired more screenings in cinemas than it otherwise would have had. Like Snowpiercer, the film is a hybrid between Western and Korean cinema, using English and Korean, with a range of international actors. Okja also mixes genres, tones, and styles freely in telling its tale that is at once a child’s fantasy and serious indictment of industrially produced food.
The film’s emotional through line is simple, though the plot is convoluted. It revolves around the love between Mija (An Seo Hyun), a farm girl living in rural South Korea, and her friend/pet Okja—a super pig sent by the Mirando (read Monsanto) Corporation to be raised on her grandfather’s farm. During the opening credits, which Bong choreographs like an Apple product launch with CEO Lucy Mirando, played by the ever-present Tilda Swinton, describing the super-pig project with superlatives and corporate buzzwords. She explains that piglets, bred by the company to be super-sized, to eat economically, and produce a minimum of waste, have been sent all over the world to be raised by farmers using traditional methods. After ten years, the best pig will be chosen and Mirando will launch its new line of environmentally friendly pork.
Cut to ten years later, Mija and Okja play in a prelapsarian forest in the Korean mountains. Okja looks like a hippopotamus with floppy ears, a slightly more porcine nose, and expressive human-looking eyes. Okja proves not only to be intelligent, but also self-sacrificing and truly affectionate toward Mija. Their idyll is soon interrupted when Dr. Johnny, a bizarre, alcoholic, TV zoologist (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes to Mija’s farm to judge Okja in the super pig contest. He decides Okja is the most beautiful. The Mirando Corporation takes Okja away to be crowned best pig in New York, and the heartbroken Mija decides to leave home and rescue her. She goes to Seoul where she is able to break into the Mirando offices and then attempts to rescue Okja in a death-defying chase scene through the streets of the city.
During the chase she encounters the militant Animal Liberation Front (ALF) who ask her permission use Okja to expose Mirando’s lies about the super-pig project. They want Okja (implanted with a hidden camera) to go to America and record the atrocities in the Mirando labs and slaughterhouses, and to show that the super pigs were created in a lab and not naturally bred. Mija does not consent, but her ALF translator lies and says that she does. The group allows Okja to be recaptured by the corporation and taken to the United States and the Mirando facility. The pictures and videos of the chase through Seoul and of the distraught Mija, taken by private mobile phones and news cameras, become a liability for Mirando. To combat the bad press, Lucy Mirando decides to take Mija in and stage a reunion between her and Okja in New York. Mija agrees, because it will allow her to get to her friend. In the United States, the ALF is able to record the inhumanity of the lab and Mija finally has to go to the super-pig processing plant to save Okja.
On this unlikely journey, Bong shifts tones wildly. In a rampage through a Seoul shopping center, Okja runs through stores with Mirando employees, police, and Mija hot on her tail. The images recall a monster movie, but the music is antic and comic. When Mija chases a truck through Seoul, performing amazing physical feats, her speed, agility, and indestructibility seem to be a nod to Buster Keaton. The scenes in the Mirando labs are truly ghastly and evoke our worst fears about industrial food production and genetic modification. At the other end of the spectrum, when Mija asks her grandfather about Mija’s fate, they have a serious discussion over a pot of fish stew about caring for animals that are meant for meat. Similarly, the scenes between Mija and Okja are heartfelt and utterly sincere. At the core of all of Bong’s films is a powerful sense of loyalty to kin, or those you consider kin. Many critics have pointed out that this is one of the most Korean aspects of his increasingly transnational cinema, reflecting Confucian family values.
Contrasted with Mija’s earnestness, the rest of the characters in the film are conflicted and duplicitous, residing in a moral gray area. This approach to character and morality resonates with the work of Bong’s Welsh co-screenwriter, Jon Ronson. He specializes in a form of gonzo journalism, where he spends time with and tries to understand people with extreme or hateful points of view—a paranormal unit of the U. S. Army in The Men Who Stare at Goats; or Islamicists, right-wing conspiracy theorists, and others in Them: Adventures With Extremists. In his latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he profiles people who have been humiliated on the Internet. He argues that though many of them have done or said truly reprehensible things, the punishment they have received at the hands of strangers on the web go far beyond what their transgression merits. Ronson advocates for a kind of radical compassion in all of his work, where he wants to find a common thread of humanity and understanding, even for the most despicable. This attitude extends also to animals: Ronson is a vegetarian and his sympathy for animals as sentient beings underlies Okja. This desire to humanize the villains causes Okja dramatic problems, and muddies a clear anticorporate, animal-rights message.
Ronson’s approach to the specific assigning of blame and the avoidance of ideology is very much in line with Bong’s politics as well. He has always shunned the label of political filmmaker. Nevertheless, Bong’s genre films have a political edge that has become increasingly anticorporate and environmental in their focus. Memories of Murder, his second feature, based on a famous unsolved serial killing from the 1980s, is a police procedural that slyly exposes the brutality of the Korean military dictatorship of that period by portraying the thuggish tactics of the police—it even contains the violent suppression of a prodemocracy rally. Bong’s international breakthrough, The Host, was inspired by the so-called McFarland Incident, where it was revealed that the U.S. Army and other corporations were dumping chemicals into the Han River. The gigantic monster that terrorizes Seoul in The Host is a product of this pollution. Snowpiercer—Bong’s first English-language production, also featuring Tilda Swinton—moves closer to the combination of anticorporate and food politics in Okja. It is about a train that travels around a postapocalyptic, ice-bound earth, carrying the last surviving humans. The train is a strictly hierarchical society where occupants of the last carriages are an enslaved workforce, compelled to eat a paste derived from insects as a result of the scarcity of food on the train.
Lucy Mirando and Dr. Johnny are strange caricatures who behave bizarrely and speak with strange stylized accents (Ronson said he based Dr. Johnny on Johnny Morris, the BBC presenter of a show called Animal Magic). Lucy has been traumatized by her father, the ruthless former Mirando CEO. Lucy’s attempts to humanize the company with the supposedly naturally raised super pigs is an attempt to erase her father’s legacy. That she is lying and the pigs are actually genetically modified and treated horribly in her processing plant is presented as simply a weakness on her part and just a part of her daddy issues. Dr. Johnny has sold his integrity to Mirando, because his show has failed. He is willing to commit terrible acts of cruelty toward the very animals he has dedicated his life to protecting. Gyllenhaal’s histrionic performance, and the character’s constant drinking, highlight his pain and moral confusion. Similarly, the ALF are portrayed as pompous, bungling, and deluded. Their leader, played by Paul Dano, has a genuine love of animals and cares for Mija, but he is didactically committed to the charter of the ALF and his actions are often doctrinaire and ruthless. He and the group are unprepared for what Okja’s camera records. They underestimate Mirando’s power and cruelty. All of these ambiguities and character details shift the film from the political to the personal and prevent it from expressing a consistent anticorporate statement, nor an endorsement of the radical politics of the ALF. The film ends up with a surprisingly obvious message: it’s bad to be mean to animals.
The most potent political statements in the film happen in extremely short scenes, as though by chance. When K (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun)—the ALF translator who lies about Mija’s consent—says goodbye to her, he advises, “Mija, learn English; it opens new doors!” During the chase scene we see an American soldier in the Seoul Metro. Both moments point to Bong’s desire to point out the conflicted relationship between South Korea and the United States that has existed since the Korean War. Okja contains moments of great emotion, making us feel the injustice of the poor super pig’s fate. There is powerful imagery of factory farming and Bong is able to give a visceral sense of the inhumanity and repulsiveness of genetically modified food. Bong is very talented at evoking emotions and creating stunning visuals. His interest in quirky human behavior and abruptly juxtaposing vastly different tones and styles make Okja an exhilarating experience that does cause the viewer to question industrial food production, but I only wish Bong would have taken his critique a step further and made a clearer political statement.
Rahul Hamid, a Cineaste editor, teaches film at New York University.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4