Made Overseas: Okja (2017)

To coin a phrase from a wise caveman, the modern world confuses and frightens me.  What, for example, are we to make of Okja? Is it a foreign movie?  Is it a movie at all?  Sure, it was helmed by Bong Joon-ho, a prominent Korean director, and stars several Korean actors.  But it’s most visible cast are Hollywood actors Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Lily Collins.  Most of the movie was shot in English. As to the second point, the movie debuted on Netflix.  Sure, some Korean theaters aired it, but they were generally small indie theaters.  A sizable portion of the Cannes Film Festival, who booed when the Netflix logo came on screen, certainly don’t consider this to be a movie.  It’s a lot easier to pin down Bong’s The Host, which on release was the number one Box office hit of South Korea.

I’m going to call this a foreign film, though, mainly because so much of it feels so strange from a Western perspective.  I’m told, for example, that Jake Gyllenhaal, who comes across as a try-hard lunatic, was playing a parody of a children’s host on Korean TV.  I’ll take your word for it, internet.

If you didn’t know what you were getting into, you could be fooled pretty easily into believing that Okja was a family friendly movie.  It’s about a girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) who raises a giant pet named Okja. He’s referred to as a “superpig” by the Monsanto-like corporation sponsoring him, although he looks like a whimsical cross between a dog and a hippo. They laugh and play around the lush woodlands around the farm like they were in a Hayao Miyazaki film.

The movie, though, takes a pretty dark turn midway through the film. If you want to sit down and watch this movie with your kids, please consider the following:  it’s rated TV-MA, and Tilda Swinton drops an f-bomb pretty early in the movie.

 

On the other hand, it just might be that Okja is better than Disney at updating the spirit of classic fairy tales.  You know, the ones where evil stepsisters cut of their toes so they can squeeze them into a glass slipper.  Think of it:  Bong’s other story of a train traveling on a continent spanning track in a world of permanent wintertime sounds more likely to be found in the collected works of Hans Christian Anderson than something you’d find in the fantasy/sci-fi aisle.  Okja similarly transports you to a world that’s unreal, where whimsical comedy bits like pig selfies exist side by side with sordid imagery of giant animals getting their heads caved in.  And at the end everyone learns a lesson.

But, as the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland asks, what is the moral?  Is it “meat is murder”?  Okja is given an innocent personality after all.  Why would they kill such a kind beast?  Most of the movie is spent with Mija on the run and assisted by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).  On the other hand, while ALF is portrayed as sympathetic and well-meaning, they’re also portrayed as being totally ineffective and incompetent. Their moments of heroism generally accomplish nothing, not even the simple task of something as grassroots as “creating awareness.”

Perhaps the moral is more nihilistic.  This isn’t Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  Bong can shed light on the dirty and inhumane conditions of factory farmed livestock.  He can show the intelligence of an animal who bears the name of one of the most intelligent animals on the planet.  But he also knows nothing will change.  You, the viewer, can see them extracting a small dowel of flesh out of Okja.  The flesh is then seared to taste testers, who declare the meat delicious.

And you’re right there with those taste testers, wondering about the flavor of cooked Okja.

 

Complicating matters, too, is Tilda Swinton’s character of Lucy, the CEO of the Mirando Corporation. She’s bubbly and chipper and seems to believe that the genetically created “superpig” is the solution to world hunger while being environmentally friendly.

“The world’s population is at 7 billion,” she says in the opening scenes.  “805 million human beings struggle with hunger every day, including 30 million right here in the United States. The world is running out of food, and we’re not talking about it.”

It eats only a little but yields a large amount of meat.  We’re meant to view Lucy as a villain.  It turns out, for example, that the media campaign to portray superpigs as carefree creatures frolicking in idyllic farms was all a cover to hide the true factory farm practices.

But… what if she’s right?  After all, Okja is a fake animal created with the sole purpose of being eaten.  Is it still morally wrong?  Even at then end, when the true villain appears, it’s confirmed that literally all of the superpig is used.  “Except the squeal,” says the villain.  I’m assuming that the very existence of a “superpig” spares several other animals from the same indignity.

Perhaps it’s analogous to the biofuel dilemma, which sounds like a home run at first.  Fuels that are also a renewable resource?  How can you lose?  Well… you can if it turns out that it takes too much energy to grow the plant matter and process the fuels.  But that doesn’t mean calling it quits like the movie seems to suggest.  You keep pressing on, perhaps finding promise in things like algae.

I suppose morally confused movies are not all that unique to Bong Joon-ho movies.  Snowpiercer, after all, seems to doom all humanity when Captain America decides that the train needs to end.  Which is why I think that Okja may be more nihilistic than it initially appears.  I think Bong knows exactly what he’a doing.  The good guys?  We’re rooting for them… but maybe they’re incredibly naive  to how the world really works.

NEXT: Grab your hammer for the idiosyncratic Korean action thriller Oldboy!