Okja, the newest film by Bong Joon-ho, director of Snowpiercer and The Host, with writing assistance from Frank visionary Jon Ronson, might just be the film that makes you re-evaluate what you eat.
That’s not to say that Bong Joon-ho has set out to make a pro-vegan film, as some of the characters in the tale eat meat and fish stew as part of their rural existence, but the film is a clear message about the horrors of factory farming – metaphorically displayed on screen by the presence of an enormous, incredibly intelligent CGI super pig.
The plot follows Mija and Okja, human and super pig, at the culmination of shadowy food corporation Mirando’s ‘best super pig competition.’ This, we learn quickly, is a ploy by the company to pretend their new pigs are not genetically engineered and to give them a more visible, authentic background. Farmers from around the world are sent a pig to raise, and it is Okja who ‘wins.’
The prize, unfortunately, is to be taken away to America – where the creature will be showcased as the organic, free-range model of Mirando’s newest food line. For Mija, whose life is saved by Okja, this is not acceptable. Cue a rescue attempt by the Animal liberation front (ALF) – and some shocking truths unveiled.
I won’t go any further into the plot, but it goes without saying that the film clearly condemns factory farming and echos real world companies with its fictional Mirando. However, it wouldn’t be a korean film without a great cast – and some cartoon-esque characters. The bond between Mija and Okja is visible from the beginning to the end, and the actress Seo-Hyeon Ahn is convincing throughout. You’d hardly guess Okja is just a CGI creation with the emotion on display.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton are the main antagonists here, and both put on wacky performances. Gyllenhaal, one of my all time favourite actors, is overboard and as ‘ham’ (get the pun?) as can be as the bizarre Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a TV personality and animal ‘lover.’ His camp, alcoholic swagger is incredibly annoying – but I suppose that’s the point. Tilda Swinton, meanwhile, plays the CEO of Mirando – a vainglorious, self-obsessed, erratic woman who is more concerned with creativity. Her sister (also played by Swinton) is the old CEO and represents a return to old-school, merciless businessperson attitude.
For me, the best character is played by the head of the ALF, Paul Dano. The gang of freedom fighters, who would usually be the shining knights of goodness in any other film, are instead clumsy and slightly inept. Paul Dano, the head of the bunch, is smooth, caring and despite the group’s flaws, clearly cares about Okja and Mija.
It’s a sense of care that carries the film. You care quickly for Okja, and seeing her subjected to the events of the film is harrowing and painful. Mija, the lens through which we experience Okja, is almost a metaphor for the viewer – experiencing the cruelty and horror of factory farming for the first time.
Ultimately, Okja is both a heart-warmer and a heart-breaker of a film. It’s typically Korean, with cartoon-esque segments interspersing the very real, very timely message. We are not aware of where our food comes from – and when it’s shown to us, we’re repulsed. Maybe it just takes a CGI super pig to do it.
Okja is a terrific film and a bold move by Netflix, lending the best elements of wacky Korean cinema to a modern day message, all under the guise of a metaphorical animal grown by a shadowy corporation. It’s about human beings and our love of animals – but also about our ignorance.
Watch if you liked:
Frank, The Host, Babe.