Okja managed to court more controversy than it probably deserves when it premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival on the big screen, thanks to the fact it was bankrolled by Netflix for a streaming release rather than a theatrical one. Cannes-goers, as elitist as usual, wanted their pound of reactionary flesh but the simple truth is that Okja isn’t a film worth anyone getting their knickers in a twist over.
From the mind of Bong Joon-Ho, a South Korean filmmaker known primarily for films that haven’t experienced major UK cinematic releases such as Snowpiercer, The Host and Mother, Okja is a curiosity which attempts to fuse the emotional bond between children and animals normally reserved for Pixar in their animation, with a level of Korean fast-paced farce, jet black humour and more than a little anti-corporate, anti-GM foods sermonising. As you might expect, its an unusual blend which, in the end, struggles to gel together and deliver a cohesive whole.
Okja nonetheless has a great deal to like. Tilda Swinton, a co-producer on the film, kicks things off in barnstorming fashion as Lucy Mirando, the new head of the Mirando Corporation, which a glitzy and shiny corporate presentation which presents the central concept. Attempting to tackle the issue of a world steadily running out of food thanks to global warming and Western consumption largely, Mirando scientists develop a series of ‘super-pigs’ which will be reared by pastoral farmers across the world for 10 years before the best is presented, very publicly, for the slaughter. The rationale is simple: feed millions, give people good tasting pork, and make a ton of money.
Cut to the present day, 10 years on, and we’re introduced to the titular super-pig of the super-pigs, Okja, and the young orphaned girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), who cares for her alongside her ward and grandfather (Byun Hee-bong). A traditional and familiar dynamic is presented; Okja, despite her huge size making her look more rhinoceros than pig, is a kindly animal who Mija loves, having formed an attachment to her she hasn’t made with any other human given the isolated, peaceful Korean mountaintop she lives in. Joon-Ho takes his time establishing the bond but by the time Mirando turn up to take Okja away for as her grandfather says, her “fate”, you care about the dynamic.
Honestly, the first hour is Okja at its best, when the headstrong Mija decides she is going after her pet, essentially, upon learning she is being taken to Seoul by the corporation. We see her sprinting down the mountain and into a crowded city where, Schindler’s List-style, Joon-Ho sets this solitary young figure up as being an outsider by framing her red coat against a sea of black and grey corporate suits. Mija represents a relentless force of humanity, of hope, against a modern tide of unfeeling, bottom-line concerned robots, and the sequence where Mija pursues Okja in transit as the Animal Liberation Front, led by Paul Dano’s soft-spoken activist, try and break her out, is easily the finest sequence in the movie, filled with incident, emotion and thrills.
Oddly enough, this is where Okja starts to fracture and break down as a piece of work. Having established the Mija & Okja relationship, and suggested a film about her quest to free the animal from a terrible, inhuman, seemingly inevitable fate, Joon-Ho proceeds then to try and hammer home his point about how horrible and inhumane the Mirando Corporation are by shifting the focus away from Mija for a spell. From the beginning there is a level of heightened, absurdist reality to Okja as a movie, but it really becomes apparent in the eccentricity of Swinton’s performance as the deluded, inept Lucy, and especially via Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as TV ‘doctor’ zoologist, Johnny Wilcox.
Don’t get me wrong, Joon-Ho’s commentary here is interesting. Okja is partly about the presentation of fake reality, quite apt in the current political climate, with Lucy desperately trying to sell the indiscriminate slaughter of these genetically-modified animals as a colourful, shiny boon to the future of humanity, while Johnny is an actor constantly playing a role. It’s nice to see Gyllenhaal tapping the kind of role a younger Johnny Depp would have slotted nicely into; a slick, gurning, kindly everyman on screen and a horrendous, vacuous, probably alcoholic mess in the real world – yet he feels wasted in a role that feels more to serve a point than present a character. It’s the same with Lucy.
On the flip side, the so-called ALF aren’t given carte blanche as a force for good in Joon-Ho’s eyes as the quite militant activists determined to free Okja from her captivity and ultimate slaughter. Dano, ironically dressed in a loose-fitting suit, presents a facade of peaceful liberation and apologetically causes havoc in Seoul, but the moment one of the ALF takes unilateral action against his wishes he quite savagely resorts to violence to maintain control. Joon-Ho seems to like the concept of the ALF more than the reality; take the Mirando driver who, in a hilarious moment, decides he likes the liberators more than his job and sticks it to the man with his apathy. Played for laughs but Joon-Ho admires their morality from a distance but questions their methods up-close.
The complications arise from a moral standpoint regarding Okja herself when you consider how the script (partly by British crusading satirist Jon Ronson, hired to punch up the English-speaking roles) goes out of its way to point out these super-pigs, Okja especially, have heightened intelligence and the capacity for significant thought; take the moment early on when Okja intentionally puts herself in harms way to save Mija from a deadly mountain drop, or the mother/father super-pigs who force their piglet out of the concentration camp-esque slaughterhouse to be protected by Okja secretly. These aren’t just mindless animals being bred for slaughter, Okja is established as, to some degree, an anthropomorphised person with feelings, thoughts and emotions.
In fact, talking about the concentration camp, there’s a definite vein of Holocaust suggestive imagery in Okja which very much sets out Joon-Ho’s position on animal rights and the treatment of these creatures by the corporation. By the time Swinton switches up to play Nancy Mirando, the ousted twin who hangs over Lucy like a shadow and has to come in to fix her mess, the corporation have been established as a Gestapo equivalent for these animals, with Nancy as the cold-hearted commandant who considers Okja and the rest of them her property. Its only more filthy lucre which causes the necessary intervention Mija needs. No lessons are learned.
That’s perhaps why Okja shouldn’t be read into too deeply as a searing commentary on animal rights, the cruelty of GM food production, and the heartless face of corporations who try and disguise modern genocide through shiny products and presentations. Joon-Ho lends it too much of a light, farcical touch in many places, grounds it in eccentricity and heightened reality, for it to land heavily as a drama. The emotional component of Mija & Okja, which always works well, should be what people take from this and enjoy.
On those terms, Okja is an enjoyable romp. It’s just unfortunate it’s overlong, and that it couldn’t have been more tonally consistent and have more punch behind its genuinely affecting and powerful themes.