The South Korean director Bong Joon-ho made his first English language feature in 2013. Snowpiercer, which starred Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Jamie Bell, followed a harrowing tale of an oppressed group of people aboard a train holding humanity’s last survivors, who revolt against the unfair hierarchy upon the destination-less train. The film was darkly fantastic, no surprise from Bong Joon-ho, who is rightly regarded as one of the best filmmakers in the world today. The director has returned (and brought Tilda Swinton along with him) with another English language feature Okja. The film, which is distributed by Netflix, was entered to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Unlike Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 thriller The Host (not to be confused with the 2013 messy post-apocalyptic drama with Saoirse Ronan) which featured a mutant fish-like monster with deadly tentacles that was created after formaldehyde was carelessly dumped in the Han River, Okja favours its titular monster. Okja is a massive animal, a sort of hybrid of a huge pig and a manatee, and is the beloved best friend of child actress Ahn Seo-hyun’s Mija. Okja is then kidnapped by the multi-national company Mirando, ran by Tilda Swinton’s Lucy Mirando, who have chosen Okja as a part of their Super Pig project, to produce more “environmentally friendly” meat. Mija teams up with an animal rights group, led by Paul Dano’s Jay, to take down Mirando and return Okja to Mija’s care.
Bong Joon-ho scores big with Okja. No matter your position in the streaming services versus traditional cinema debate, the fact remains that Okja is a brilliant film. Whether you consume it in a movie theatre or at home on your laptop, it won’t change the wonderfully compelling and beautiful story that Bong Joon-ho tells through stunning cinematography, an incredible script and mesmerizing characters and performances.
The film opens with a sequence featuring Tilda Swinton as a quirky yet immediately sociopathic CEO of Mirando, explaining the Super Pig Project and their plans to compete genetically engineered super pigs before slaughtering them all in mass meat production. This introductory sequence is interspersed with Snowpiercer-esque animations that aid the context of the film as well as the film’s credits. Swinton is incredibly wacky, she speaks with joyous conviction and dresses in pastel colours, yet there is a thick underbelly of terror in her character. We know from the offset that this woman is evil and Swinton delivers this with ease, slightly reminiscent of her monstrous and clown-like performance in Director Bong’s Snowpiercer.
We are then introduced to Mija, the hero of the film, and Okja, her best friend. Their adorable friendship is effervescent from the minute they appear on-screen. Actress Ahn Seo-hyun works brilliantly beside the CGI creature, who is also fascinating to watch. They frolic and play in the scenic mountains outside Seoul, South Korea, nailing in their irresistible companionship right away. This is one of the most important and brilliant points of the film. Mija’s unrelenting determination to keep Okja safe is what drives the entire narrative.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Dr. Johnny Wilcox, is soon introduced as the Mirando Corporation turn up to take Okja away to New York. Gyllenhaal is absolutely incredible, generating most of the humour from the film, yet simultaneously evoking hatred. He plays the drunk, has-been TV personality so perfectly and horrifically, with one sequence in which he drunkenly laments (squeals) of his failing career as he tortures Okja being one of the most uncomfortable yet fascinating scenes of the film.
Okja is intense. One of the reasons that makes it so thrilling is how it deals with the subject matter. There’s no dancing around the gross facts of the meat industry. Hard-hitting and vulgar scenes show in detail how the super pigs are abused, tortured and slaughtered. These harrowing and horrific insights into the livestock industry are hard to watch yet perfectly force us to think about the way we produce and consume meat in the real world. Using this analogy of “super pigs” seems ridiculous and implausible at first, yet as the film folds out the concept appears almost too real. Director Bong’s genius comes into play when the film is slowly structured to be the opposite of an issue piece. Okja is not vegan propaganda at all. The Animal Liberation Front, an organisation led by Paul Dano’s Jay, are antagonized as well as the Mirando Corporation. Their agenda is backward, they promise to liberate Okja and the other super pigs yet they lead Okja right into the heart of danger, and they betray Mija’s trust. There are moral conflicts and hints of corruption within their organisation, with a sequence painfully picturing Dano’s character brutally beating K (played by the wonderful Steven Yeun) after the latter mistranslates Mija. Both sides of the livestock industry debate are characterised as ambiguous and disagreeable in the film. The only sincere position worth rooting for is Mija and her unconditional devotion to Okja.
The film’s intensity is lifted, however slightly, by its remarkable humour. Gyllenhaal and Swinton’s characters are almost burlesque with their respective narcissistic squealing and totalitarian-like vibrancy, and most of what comes out of their mouths is hilarious, yet that seems to be exactly what makes them so authentically terrifying. Looking back on Gyllenhaal’s first introduction in the film evokes a grin, his effervescence that has an underlying sense of alcohol-driven acidity is riotous and endearing. Nevertheless, in the horrific sequence – which is brilliantly cemented by Director Bong’s signature style – where he forces Okja to mate and extracts her meat, he is revolting. Gyllenhaal never fails to make himself the centre of any film he is in and in Okja, he plays a supporting role but is one of the most memorable features of the film.
Although it is boring to compare a director’s work to his previous, the contrast and similarities between Okja and Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 film The Host beg to be addressed. The principal characters of the two films are very reminiscent of each other, with both Hyun-seo (The Host) and Mija (Okja) being clever, compassionate and determined young teenage girls who invoke pathos through their actresses’ wonderful performances. However, the titular characters are positioned completely differently. In The Host, Hyun-seo faces up against a villainous monster who snatches her away from her father and dumps her in the sewers. In Okja, Mija has been best friends with Okja, a huge yet introverted creature, since she was four years old.
Another brilliant similarity between the two films is the political message that the fictitious monsters convey. The Host provided political commentary on international relations between the U.S. and South Korea as the premise of the film (American military carelessly dumping formaldehyde in the Han river thus creating a massive man-eating monster) loosely reflected real life events. Okja, on the surface, appears to be a deconstruction of the meat industry and a pro-vegetarian piece. The film’s message is a lot more complex than that, but human entitlement is a definitive value, not only from the Mirando Corporation who have grotesquely mass engineered the super pigs and slaughtered them routinely, but also the Animal Liberation Front who are almost hilariously self-entitled in their stubborn opposition to meat (one fantastic scene shows a member on the brink of unconsciousness – or death – declaring how “all food production is exploitative”). It’s also worth noting that Mija, whose protection of Okja is the most sincere and acts as the only clearly sympathetic character, eats chicken and fish with her grandfather. The film isn’t trying to turn you vegetarian or vegan, it is trying to make you think about the exploitative, excessive and unethical methods we use in the meat industry.
The film’s ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ narrative is perfectly effective, with the result showing Mija saving Okja (as well as an adorable little baby super-pig) and taking them back to the mountains, but the Mirando Corporation have still won. Mija and the ALF didn’t take down Mirando with a big confetti canon; they failed. And as Mija leads Okja away from the slaughter plant, she looks back to the pigs who are still herded inside with the gunshots sounds ringing out hauntingly.
What you take away from Okja isn’t entirely about the message that is being conveyed, or the issue the film revolves around, but the personal connection that you create with the incredible and compelling story. Vegetarian, vegan or meat-eater; this film is an undeniable must-see.
Okja Result: A*