Okja, the new film from Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) is a hyper-stylized PR nightmare for the meat industry that will make you laugh, cry, and at the very least feel a cattle prod shock of guilt about the mainstream dietary practices of our species. It’s that best kind of satire that disarms you with its vibrant colour, endearing characters, and heart-pounding action, only so you are better prepared to experience its strong political message: meat is murder.
The film centers around a girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her friendship with the titular Okja: one of 26 genetically engineered super-pigs sent to farmers around the globe for a contest of who can raise the best neo-swine. The relationship between Mija and Okja is assaulted when Mirando, the massive corporation behind this worldwide sci-fi 4-H fair, comes to collect its property. The pigs are to be shipped back to New York, where the winner will be trotted around in a parade before joining the rest of its species in the slaughterhouse. And so the age-old rivalry between bloodthirsty corporations and little girl idealists is reignited in the name of love for a pet.
Kinetic camerawork, theatrical framing, and a brilliant palette make every moment of Okja a pleasure to watch. Small details like quick zooms in on characters’ faces, the juxtaposition of Mija’s red coat against a sea of bland consumers, the image of tranquilizer darts deflected with umbrellas used as shields—they all add up to a series of images that help underline the emotional truth driving a clever, oftentimes devastating script by Bong Joon Ho and co-writer Jon Ronson (Frank, The Men Who Stare at Goats). Okja is easy to engage with, and once you’re in its world the satire becomes more effective.
The villainous Mirando corporation, run by Lucy and Nancy Mirando (both Tilda Swinton) and represented by the manic TV celebrity clown Dr. Johnny Wilcox (an unhinged Jake Gyllenhaal), is a clear caricature of real life agrochemical and biotech giant Monsanto, with the script even going as far as making an Agent Orange reference in a company board meeting. In addition to crushing the resilient spirit of a young girl, Mirando also must contend with the non-violent eco-terrorism of a more charming and sympathetic version of PETA called the Animal Liberation Front, or ALF. The ideological war between these organizations pushes Okja beyond the realm of adventure parable and into true allegory, right to the point of the film all but asking meat-eating members of its audience to change their diet and help end the atrocities of factory farming with the power they hold as consumers in a capitalist system.
Despite its dogged adherence to its pro-vegetarian agenda, the moral imperative of Okja never feels preachy because the relationship between Mija and her super pig companion feels real, despite the later being a computer generated special effect. While the graphics are impressive, it’s Seo-Hyun Ahn’s acting that solidifies Okja as real and feeling. The animal is a visceral being, drooling, shitting, farting—all carnal realities Mija interacts with. And when she whispers secrets in Okja’s ear, that’s when the beast feels most real, which is good for longevity, because while history has shown CGI to age terribly, affecting performance stays precious like gold. And you need to love Okja because the film’s message hinges on your empathy.
With such a strong central relationship, and such colourful parody, the big question on my mind during the harrowing and suspenseful final act of Okja was this: can this film actually change its viewers’ behavior? Because this film seems to have been made with the singular purpose of getting people to give up eating beef and pork. It certainly makes a strong emotional case to buy ethically sourced food, one that I can’t see being countered with anything approaching the same sort of cathartic effect. There is no inverse argument to Okja in entertainment for meat marketing teams to fire back with. The purest opposite to Bong Joon Ho’s film is Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, a reality show about sweaty people slowly giving themselves heart disease as they blissfully eat pork. To choose Fieri’s world over Okja’s is simply to admit that you will accept hell on earth in favour of an early glutenous death. An equally emotional apeal, for sure, but one that comes with a side of self-loathing and shame.
The unconventional, direct-to-Netflix distribution of Okja further underlines political nature of its thesis. There is a moment late in the film where a member of the ALF tells a crowd of civilians to learn more about the hell of slaughterhouses by Googling “Mirando is Fucked,” where they will find video footage of super pigs being abused in the name of affordable jerky. The film is aware that political messages travel fast on the internet, and that ideas are strong political weapons. A number of plot points and visual gags hinge on the power of social media optics. One can’t ignore, then, that Okja is effectively free to watch for anyone who subscribes to the world’s most popular streaming service. Premiering Okja on Netflix, strategically, gets an anti-carnivore message in front of as many eyes as possible, increasing the chance that some will be convinced to spend their grocery budgets in ways that don’t support the torture of loving and intelligent animals.
At its most successful, Okja will inspire people to give up eating meat after making them weep at the horrors of the modern day slaughter house that produces all our cheap and tasty meats. And at the very least, the film paints a dynamic, moving portrait of our complicated relationship with marketing, animals, capitalism, and our diets.
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