“If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it.”
Okja takes place in the present day for a reason. Rather than push its lavishly hyperbolic take on an old Aesop Fable out into a futuristic landscape, the film instead makes its mark with an overwhelming sense of immediacy. Above all the little things the story entails, its primary issue is with how we raise/consume our food, and how it’s not a problem to be dealt with by future generations; it’s a current catastrophe of our own doing, one whose seeds were planted in the great boom of the industrial revolution and sown through the mechanics of profiteering overseers and the customer’s lazy detachment from nature. Okja packs all of that into a carnival of a film, so brazenly bombastic, disgusting and dirty, greatly exaggerated in every single aspect. In Latin it’d be called a carne vale, which appropriately means a “farewell to meat.” Prepare to fast after seeing this one, or in the very least, think before you eat. And prepare to be moved beyond measure.
It’s 2007 and Mirando Corporations CEO Lucy (Tilda Swinton) dreams up a way to battle the growing food shortage crisis. Her bright idea is more linked to science than to common sense. They’ll breed super piglets, send 26 of them off to locations spanning the globe to be raised, and in ten year’s time declare a winner. It’s like if Willy Wonka was a 4-H Fair and swapped out golden tickets with a hippo sized pig meant to feed the masses, reduce emissions, and in Lucy’s words, ” most importantly…they need to taste fucking good.” Big business is the name of the game and customer satisfaction is paramount, meaning well with the aspirations of giving food to the masses but still woefully in the wrong when it comes to nurturing the live’s of the hybrid animals because they’re considered to be of lesser spiritual value. Lucy isn’t tormented or vengeful or outright evil; she’s simply naive and immoral with her opportunistic agenda. That makes for the kind of antagonist we want to slap across the face and then hug with pity.
Lucy seems to have been reared without compassion. That’s not the case for Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) though. With both parents dead and raised by her grandfather, Mija’s foremost link to the Earth and to the feeling of requited love is her super pig Okja. Together they roam their evergreen South Korean countryside, sharing a rapport that transcends words or actions and is connected between two hearts that beat in unison. An early scene shows their commitment to one another, harkening all the way back to the saving grace presence of Lassie, displaying selflessness and intuition and genuine concern for the world around them and the ones they love who live in it. This opening is specifically foreign by design; in a distant corner of the map, all things live in harmony, and in this pre-adolescent state are allowed to function without being tainted by the cruelty of man. For Okja and Mija, winning the ultimate prize could come at the ultimate cost.
Mirando’s wacky zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a disgraced drunkard and self-professed animal lover, is almost speechless upon meeting Okja. He practically orgasms at the sight of her, such a majestic creature, admiring her beauty, asking the secret to her success. “Just let her run around.” She’s the prized pig, and as such is hauled back to New York for a festival. Right here is where a film as ridiculously plotted as Okja should have gone up in flames. Mija’s pet is kidnapped, then freed by members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) – they’re led by Jay (Paul Dano) – then purposefully handed back over to Mirando to hopefully expose the corporation’s savage cruelty. I said earlier that Okja’s first third feels specifically foreign because it is a mostly show and don’t tell intro to a bond between two souls. Then it shifts towards a second act dependent on action, and ultimately finishes in a puzzling piece somewhere between the two. That recipe for disaster should never work and the tone should be all over the place. Not only does filmmaker Bong Joon-ho find the through line needle in this massive haystack, he somehow manages to weave together a moving portrait with poop/fart jokes and oddball humor and an unshakable finale that reduced me to tears. Everything about this masterpiece is overwhelming.
Some shots of Okja herself look a bit cartoonish, perhaps on purpose, or maybe because the budget couldn’t render them more clearly. I actually think it works to the film’s benefit. We don’t have to believe that this creature is one in the flesh; like the relationship between Atreyu and the animatronic Falkor from The Neverending Story, the bond and the banter is what matters more. But what they couldn’t – and didn’t – fake in Okja were the shots of her eyes. They’re open bodies of water, pools swimming in emotions like joy and hate and suffering, an instantaneously erected bridge between the super pig’s own internal evaluation and our supposedly superior humanity. Okja’s eyes level us and bring our self-righteousness down a rung. In some scenes she’s as happy as a video rolling around Facebook of countless golden retrievers overtaking a pool. In others she may as well come with a Sarah McLachlan music cue and a 1-800 number. Her pet eyes emote true feeling in the way that I think only dogs really can. What’s so strange about this part of the film is that, since people (and all creatures, for that matter) are inherently selfish, we are forced to imbue our own humanity into a super pig so that we can empathize. We aren’t looking at a CGI creation. Up close and personal, we’re seeing at ourselves. Few films have this kind of simultaneously alienating and collective bargaining agreement.
While I’m sure his influences vary far and wide, for me, Okja lives and breathes as Bong Joon-ho’s synthesis of the documentary Fast Food Nation and Upton Sinclair’s lauded novel The Jungle (the book cover and this movie’s poster share smoke stacks to great effect.) Joon-ho has an extremely idiosyncratic and all-encompassing way of making movies that not only feel socially relevant, which Okja definitely is, but also become part of the mandatory social consciousness. In that regard, I think he starts with a basic premise (here a friendship ripped apart) and grafts peculiarities onto the script like a surgeon, knowing exactly when he’s found a place to call his own but hasn’t lost us to absurdity either. Okja is masterfully performed, expertly designed, technically flawless. It’s not a movie that wants to turn you vegan, but more so desperately longs to open our eyes to the holocaust of horrors happening to other living creatures. This film, at times achingly funny and in turns monstrously upsetting, sheds a light on unabsolvable sins, not asking us to take the blame but to recognize our growing disconnect from the world that gives us life. Okja hooks us to an IV bag through lampooned laughter and then pumps us full of pain, and for that very reason is one of the most vitally fluid and relevant films I’ve seen this decade.
“Translation is sacred.”
Rating: 5 out of 5