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Film Review: Okja

Okja (2017; Directed by Bong Joon-ho)

The extremely campy and surprisingly moving social-commentary satire of Okja turned its director, Bong Joon-ho, into a vegan (though only temporarily), and an easy, surface-level assumption would be that the Korean/English film’s aim is to turn you into one, too. But such a glib summation would be manifestly unfair to Okja‘s at-once playful, cauterizing, and nuanced critique of contemporary capitalism, of mass production and consumption of meat, and of the limits of both revolutionary activism and human empathy in resisting corporate exploitation.

Okja is not only the title of the film but the name of its central CG-crafted focal point, an affectionate, loyal, intelligent “superpig”, a breed of genetically-modified swine roughly the size of a small Indian elephant. Okja is one of 26 such superpigs raised in accordance with sustainable, organic, and humane swineherding methods by specially-selected local farmers across the world. She lives in blissful harmony in the lush South Korean mountains with her human best friend Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and Mija’s grandfather Heebong (Byun Hee-bong). Placed there 10 years before by her owners at the multinational Mirando Corporation, the thriving Okja is considered the finest of the superpig specimens and the likely winner of a forthcoming competition to crown the best of the 26 creatures. To be held in New York City, the competition is the public-relations brainchild of the current company CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who is seeking to improve Mirando’s image with consumers after the damaging tenures of her chemical-weapon-dealing father and her likewise ruthless sister Nancy (also Swinton).

Despite the deep bond between girl and superpig, Mija and Okja are fated to be separated by the competition and whatever follows it, which, headline-grabbing spectacles aside, will very likely be the animal’s death and sickening processing as (apparently very delicious) meat. Mija’s determination to save her big cuddly friend will take her to Seoul, Manhattan, and finally to a sprawling mechanized nightmare slaughterhouse that serves to demonstrate that Mirando’s gestures (and, by extension, those of all corporate entities in the same business) towards humane treatment of livestock are only gestures, and nothing more. She’ll have help from the radical animal-rights activists of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), led by the thoughtful but sneakily uncompromising Jay (Paul Dano), who seek to expose Mirando’s mass-marketed ruse and the cruel abbatoir realities that lay behind it to a shocked public, but need Okja as an unwitting inside agent to do it.

Like Bong’s inescapably flawed but unquestionably visionary and attention-snatching last Korean/English feature Snowpiercer, Okja casts a withering eye on the disingenuousness of capitalism and its underlying exploitative monstrosity and constriction of choice. However, Okja is a gentler film than the brutal, viscerally gut-punching Snowpiercer. The paradisical glow of the opening act in the Korean countryside infuses Mija and Okja’s odyssey through pain and back to safety and never really leaves the film, despite Bong’s patented drastic shifts in tone; even the climactic visit to the slaughterhouse facility is relatively tame, certainly when compared to the real thing (which Bong witnessed while researching the film, leading to his brief foreswearing of meat).

But Okja is never a preachy or self-righteous film: Mija’s no vegetarian herself (her favourite food is chicken stew), and Bong pokes fun at one of Jay’s ALF comrades who has become weak and pallid from refusing to eat anything due to the ethical and chemical imperfections inherent to nearly all food products. Poking fun, sometimes with a hefty and sharply-pointed stick, is indeed Bong’s core instinct. Unlike the sinister cadre of villains defending the socially-stratified train of Snowpiercer, Okja’s antagonists are clownish (if still malevolent). Swinton’s Mirando sisters personify two sides of the same capitalist coin: constantly-pivoting, desperate-to-please Machivellian corporate spin (Lucy) and old-fashioned unscrupulous trodding on the necks of the vulnerable to maximize profit (Nancy). Bong intelligently associate the slaughterhouse directly with the slower, more grinding killing floors of older Industrial Revolution-vintage manufacturing plants, as Lucy unveils her purportedly kinder and more woke initiative (which is a mere PR cover for industrial slaughter) in the same abandoned factory where her father enriched himself working disposable people beyond count to their eventual graves. Behind quarterly profits then as well as now lies a disavowed continuum of suffering. Furthermore, an initially unrecognizable and completely frothing-at-the-mouth unhinged Jake Gyllenhaal shows up as a supporting Mirando toadie, the Crocodile Hunter-esque TV host and zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox; while the character is a broad parody of the degradation of American celebrity, he also presides (with sweat-soaked, inebriated guilt) over a horror-show Mirando experimental lab where Okja is subjected to awful treatment.

This tendency to emphasize the dark absurdity of the modern capitalist world transfers to Okja‘s action scenes, where subversion is the order of the day. The hijacking of the Mirando truck carrying Okja away from Seoul might have taken the form of a Dark Knight-type showstopping setpieces in the hands of another director, but Bong will have none of that here, thank you very much: he troubles the action waters by making a comic point of the ALF’s firm moral principles (“We are not terrorists!” they emphasize from behind their balaclavas; “We believe in non-violence!” Jay declares before ramming the Mirando truck into a tunnel wall) and by interspersing the comic relief of a cynical low-level Mirando truck driver very much not inclined to stick up for his corporate employer. And this is a mere warm-up stretch for when Okja gets loose in an underground mall, a sequence of stumbling, semi-comedic chaos reminiscent of similar moments in Bong’s Korean-language monster movie The Host. Scored by loopy carnivalesque music and finally, in a stupendously hilarious and inspired left-field choice, by John Denver’s “Annie Song”, this scene is neo-capitalist culture run ludicrously rampant, complete with a fuzzy-animal-ear-wearing teen girl equally desperate to escape the rampaging Okja with her life and to take a selfie with the beast.

For all of its varied critiques of capitalism (and of capitalism’s critics), Okja does not offer a cure to its incipient cruelty, nor anything but a pyrrhic emotional victory against the industrial-scale killing factories of the meat business. As much empathy as we feel for Okja, as much as we hope for a happy ending for her and Mija, Bong does not for a moment suggest that our empathy will overcome the inertia of the production line, let alone of the bottom line. Like a lot of critiques of this particular socioeconomic system, Bong’s suggests that the injection of a bit of humanity could go a long way in righting its wrongs. Unlike a lot of such critiques, it doesn’t flatter the capitalist superstructure by even entertaining the possibility that any moral rectitude – whether impelled by facing up to emotional connections like that between Mija and Okja or by being confronted with massive-scale cruelty as exposed by the ALF – could conceivably overcome the lucrative temptations of capital obtained by whatever means necessary. The only value that counts, ultimately, is the exchange value of wealth. That Bong Joon-ho can drop such a pitilessly realistic ideological conclusion and still grant Okja a limited but nonethelessly glowing final emotional boost is quietly impressive. A lot of movies have something on their mind, but Okja summons contradicting and self-challenging thoughts and feelings and gains much more by not resolving them than it could by tying them up cleanly and boldly.

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