Film Review: Okja
Written by Andrew Busch
Bong Joon-ho’s latest film, Okja, is a far cry from the frozen world and class divided train of Snowpiercer. But even though Okja strays away from apocalyptic scenarios, it makes a dark prediction for the future of the food industry and humanity.
On a macro scale, the plot is about a major corporation that develops a new “super-pig” with the purpose of raising these animals for slaughter and making a pretty penny. In a hope to capture popular interest in their new pigs, the Mirando Corporation develops a contest where they give a pig to a handful of farmers across the world. Whoever raises the healthiest super-pig wins. That’s where the main plotline comes in; a young girl from South Korea, Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyeon), develops a relationship with her super-pig, Okja, after her grandfather, Heebong (Byun Hee-bong), receives instructions to raise the animal on his farm. However, Mija quickly finds herself in a conflict between animal rights activists and the Mirando Corporation as the plot develops.
As a result, one of the major strengths of Okja is that it takes the structure of popular children’s movies where one child forms a deep friendship with an animal. This story has been repeated time and time again by classics like Free Willy to newer renditions like Pete’s Dragon. Bong’s film uses this same structure as a vehicle to create an unforgettable story and more importantly as a critique. Mija and Okja might be at the center, but their adventure calls to question the major titans that rule our capitalist society as well as how we perceive the relationship between animals and food.
At the same time, Okja is definitely not a children’s movie and that is a good thing. While it can be lighthearted and even resemble another Disney film at times, it features some brutal moments that are intended to make viewers uncomfortable. In an interview with BBC, Bong explains, “We coexist with animals and we should take time to consider their perspective. How we treat them today is a very recent phenomenon and came to be only after we included them in mass production.” But Bong’s critique of the mass production of meat never feels heavy-handed or too sudden. Okja slowly peels away viewer’s distance between what they think of as cute animals and what they regard as food. And while the method Bong uses to present this issue is conventional, it packs a powerful punch while keeping Mija and Okja in the foreground.
Paul Dano, Lilly Collins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-bong, Ahn Seo-Hyeon all deliver brilliant performances that make you care about a CGI hippo-manatee more than you ever thought you would.
The cast of this film is also simply unforgettable. Ahn Seo-Hyeon delivers a powerful lead performance that sells her deep connection with Okja and causes the audience to fall in love with her manatee-hippopotamus hybrid in the process. At the same time, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a role that is even more eccentric than his lead part in Night Crawler as he takes on Jonny Wilcox, a zoologist and TV host. Johnny is especially interesting because while cameras are pointed in his direction he becomes a hyper-masculine lover of animals, but as he moves off screen he is insecure and could care less about any living creature besides himself. Additionally, Paul Dano and Steven Yeun are simply brilliant as members of the Animal Liberation Front and are devoted to their cause to take down the Mirando Corporation to a fault. While it is impossible to mention the dozen or so cast members that deliver a wonderful performance in Okja, each unique character causes the plot to feel less like a localized story about Mija and her pet super-pig and more like a full-scale battle over the future of the food industry.
At the same time, the main issue with Okja is that Bong’s film quickly becomes a warzone between animal rights activists and a major multinational corporation, but it doesn’t follow through. In its final moments, the film leaves behind Mirando and the Animal Liberation Front in order to redirect its focus back to Mija and Okja. But in the process of this transition, the film completely loses the momentum of the large-scale conflict that is heavily emphasized from the opening scene. Specifically, in its final moments when Bong presents the most gruesome and macabre to the audience he is too quick to let up. This causes the happy ending of Okja to feel more like a participation medal or a consolation prize built in to give the audience a happy ending. And although it serves as a nice little diversion to help you swallow your tears, it takes some of the biting edge off of the film’s toughest moment.
While Okja struggles in its final scenes, its hesitance to carry the main critique one step further does not devalue what the film accomplishes. It remains a masterfully made piece that walks the line between fun-loving adventure and honest critique. It also serves as a challenge for all of us that separate the food we sit down to eat from the cute animals we love and cherish. The next time you scroll through Netflix’s endless library let me save you some time. Okja may not sound like something that everyone wants to see, but it is definitely a film that that everyone should.
Okja is now available on the streaming site Netflix. View Andrew's website, Gamefes, here