A Quirky Call to Arms: Bong Joon-ho’s OKJA

The eagerly anticipated Okja hit Netflix last week, hot off the back of the drama it caused at Cannes a few months ago. The controversy? Okja, as a Netflix production, hasn’t had an “official” cinema release, which angered some of the umm, how do we put this nicely, more mature film critics and aficionados out there.

Let’s be clear. Though there is very little that can compare to seeing a film at the cinema, there is very little worse than not having access to cinema in it’s entirety. Nowadays, cinema tickets are financially crippling, and if you tried to buy every film you wanted on DVD post release, you’d probably have to take out a bank loan. There is a distinct change in the film industry, especially with Netflix taking on more and more productions and distributing them solely over their service. Yes, it signals a step away from the traditional screenings but if it makes cinema accessible for more people, then this can only be a good thing.

With this out of the way, let’s talk about Okja and how Bong Joon-ho can’t seem to put a foot wrong.

Okja, the titular character, is a super pig. ‘Discovered’ by the Mirando Corporation, headed up by Tilda Swinton’s Lucy Mirando, the super pigs are sent across the world to be raised by farmers in natural habitats. The super pig, so says Lucy, are natural, sustainable, good for the environment and (most importantly) will be incredibly efficient at feeding people. Okja is taken to South Korea and is bought up by Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her Grandfather, on their tiny farm miles away from civilisation. Nestled in the mountains with little else to do, Mija and Okja become best friends – playing, working and eating together.

Okja’s story really begins when a Mirando representative comes to retrieve Okja from Mija’s farm, and take her back to the US where there will be a ‘Best Super Pig Competition’. Mija, naturally, is horrified at the thought of losing her best friend, and so endeavours to bring Okja back home. Aided in part by the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) on the way, Mija stops at nothing to save Okja from the fate the Mirando Company has in store for her.

One could read Okja as a film which is pointedly criticizing the global meat industry, and one that fits very nicely onto Netflix’s existing shelf of documentaries on the subject (Food Inc, Forks Over Knives, Fed Up, Cowspiracy and more). Realistically though, Okja seems more like a socio-political satire exploring the oxymoron of ‘ethical’ consumerism and the hilarious hypocrisies of PR and marketing for greed driven corporations. The Mirando Company, which suffered devastating PR nightmares when run by Lucy’s twin sister, is changing to become the new, friendlier face of the meat industry.

I don’t believe that Okja is a film solely about the meat industry or, as it has been hailed, the ‘vegetarian’ film of the year. If Boon wanted to simply criticize the meat industry, then it would have been far more effective to star a real animal as the film’s protagonist. Okja, despite resembling a pig, is unlike any animal we have known – especially because she seems to speak to Mija at some points. The two of them understand each other like humans do, not in the way of an animal-human relationship. Okja isn’t really a stand in for animals which are processed by the meat industry, so it’s hard to justify the film as taking a huge stand solely against meat-eating and promoting vegetarianism.

The slaughterhouse sequence, where Mija witnesses the conditions in which the super pigs are kept and killed, is one scene which does stray into the Cowspiracy et al territory. It’s heartbreaking, and is the one time where Boon seems to be directly attacking the meat and dairy industry. Most of the sequence could have been taken directly from real farms and slaughterhouses across the globe, almost unedited. Still, Mija walks away with Okja, knowing that she can’t save every pig – and doesn’t even try to. It’s not about upending an industry, it’s about trying to keep our ethical compass in a world which wants us to see ever

Rather, Okja seems to be representative of all those exploited by capitalism. The meat industry, the fashion industry or any other industry you can think of – there is mass exploitation somewhere along the chain.

Isn’t the real message that corporate capitalism doesn’t work without exploitation of some kind? That the term ‘ethical consumerism’ is an oxymoron? It’s possible that we can create, or breed ethically and environmentally friendly animals who are cared for and live comfortable lives. But the endgame of capitalism is to make more money, and this morality nonsense will never be the cheaper option.

When the Mirando corporation come to take Okja away, Mija’s Grandfather presents her with a gold pig. He tells her it’s worth a lot of money, money that she may need in the future. Instead of having an honest conversation with her about what is going to happen to Okja, he lies to her and tries to rectify it by giving her something of value – something which can be traded for money. To complete the circle, Mija uses the gold pig to trade Okja back at the end of the film. The gold pig, like Okja, has transactional value. Is this the point that Boon and Ronson are making? Everything, every being, has a monetary value and can be traded for it.

We are all consumers, all mindless to the whims of greedy corporations. As Okja and Mija are chased into the underground mall of Seoul, we see the two sides of the market visually collide together. The super pig is too large to comfortably fit into the shops and walkways in the claustrophobic mall, and the two of them crash into everything in sight. They career into zombie-fied shoppers and harshly food aisles. The product is meeting the consumer at last. The two fit unhappily together even though Okja will eventually be something which is sold in these very same shops.

Okja is not a perfect film – Jake Gyllenhaal is hideously miscast, and there is a very drawn out mid-section which drags on with little to no momentum. Yet, Okja is a film with heart and guts, that has something it wants to say about the world. We should listen.

 

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