ALEXIS CRUZ WRITES – The expression “She’s got it all” seems particularly apt for the new Netflix film “Okja” and its cloven-hooved lead.
Okja the character is smart, brave, loyal and loving, to a degree befitting her elephantine size (for the record, Okja’s sex is uncertain but we’ll call her a her for this article.) “Okja” the movie is action-packed, full of social commentary, and deeply sentimental. Together the two are winning fans and decent box office returns for a not-so-gentle jab at Big Food and the apocalypse that is the industrial meat industry.
The continent-hopping adventure follows the friendship between South Korean farm girl Mija and Okja, a genetically enhanced super-pig. Director Bong Joon Ho is a rightfully-acclaimed expert in packing all the essentials into his films without them feeling chaotic or excessive. He succeeds again with “Okja,” which blends action, comedy and dystopian science fiction.
“Okja” is an ecological film, in which an agrichemical company called Mirando distributes 26 super-pigs to carefully selected, indigenous farmers around the world. The pretense is that the swine are miracle animals, and because they’re being raised by native farmers, will have a smaller carbon footprint than industrially-raised meat.
The film follows young Mija and Okja, who was loaned to Mija’s grandfather by the Mirando company. The three live tranquil lives in the Korean mountains until the fateful day comes when Mirando wants the bacon back. Realizing her friend’s fate, Mija leaves her grandfather and mountain home on a quest to rescue Okja. Mija first sets off for Seoul, where she proves to be a worthy action heroine, jumping onto moving trucks, falling from highway overpasses, and flying through merchandise in an underground Seoul shopping center. Her journey winds up in New York, where Mirando is headquartered.
Tilda Swinton plays Lucy Mirando, head of the eponymous corporation, a nervous wreck who laments the ruthless legacy left by her father and twin sister Nancy. She’s nervous, but formidable. Lucy is the skilled propagandist that George Orwell warned us about, master of the deceitful smile and able to make the public fall in love with anything. Lucy quickly turns Mija’s attempt to rescue Okja into a publicity opportunity and flies the girl to New York for a reunion with her pig.
Lucy’s PR campaign involves getting TV zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) on her side. Wilcox is like Weird Al Yankovic’s underappreciated younger brother, who squeals more than the super-pig herself. He’s a zany character that would be perfect for a children’s program were it not for his troubled conscience and the fact that no one seems to like him.
Although Mirando has loathsome employees, not everyone on Mija’s side is admirable either. Trying to help free Okja is the Animal Liberation Front, an animal rights group that goes to comically hazardous lengths to adhere to their credo of never hurting a living soul. In their first appearance, they urge the people transporting Okja to put on their seatbelts before ramming them with a heavy-duty truck, in a chase scene that mimics the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” At least they try to make sure their adversaries observe road safety before bringing wrath upon them.
Bong Joon Ho knows how to handle levity and thrills but more importantly, he knows how to plunge his audience into dark moments. The secret of Okja’s creation is revealed to be far from “all-natural” and “organic.” Bong exposes the laboratory where Okja was created, a facility filled with horribly mutated creatures. Then, there’s the slaughterhouse where hordes of Okja’s kind are brought to their end. Bong is not easy on his audience. He reminds us that we, as consumers, bear responsibility for how capitalism has infected our relationship with animals and the brutal reality of the meat industry. Even when the Mirando company’s secrets are exposed, there’s hardly a sense of panic in the company. They replace Lucy with Nancy and the exploitation continues. They know that people will buy the meat because it’s tasty and cheap.
Despite its message, the film doesn’t necessarily support vegetarianism. Mija eats meat and even uses Okja for help fishing. The only reference to diets occurs when one of the Animal Liberation Front members consistently refuses to eat because he does not want to hurt any living things. The film focuses on our relationship with animals that we consume. Some viewers may decide to go vegetarian but the bigger issue is how agricultural practices have interfered with how we treat animals, and how people have become blind to the virtues animals possess.
The film is likely well-received mostly due to the characters Mija and Okja. Ahn Seo-hyun, as Mija, is a new type of superheroine, a teenager clad in a pink sweater who takes off to fight an international company with only a green bag on her back. Ahn is also able to hold her own in scenes with experienced actors Swindon, Gyllenhaal and Steven Yuen. Okja is also a revelation. Digital effects technology continues to evolve but computer-generated imagery remains controversial in some circles. Okja, looking like manatee/hippo/puppy hybrid, is made entirely with CGI but her creators have managed to show her as an empathetic and intelligent creature. Ahn’s performance and Okja’s fantastic appearance make the relationship between the two extremely realistic.
“Okja” may prove to be Netlfix’s first blockbuster film. The company has had success with television series, but this is one of its first feature films to make it big outside of the streaming world. “Okja” showed at the Cannes film festival, and concurrent with its release online, opened on big screens in South Korea. So far it’s taken in around $2 million there.
It may be the prospect of both streaming and theatrical revenue streams that gave Netflix nerve enough to make the film. The subject is not a natural, and might just as easily have crashed and burned as succeeded. Whatever the motivation, Netflix is to be commended for letting director Bong make the film we’ve wound up with. Viewers and animals alike say thanks.