Last Wednesday, while I was getting my mind blown by the perfection that was Baby Driver, Netflix released its latest and highly anticipated movie, Okja. Pulled from the creative recesses of the radical mind of Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) Okja sets out to shed light on our global reliance on genetically modified organisms for consumption by introducing us to a friendly, intelligent, computer generated super pig.
Okja opens with a brace-faced Tilda Swinton going on and on about saving her company Mirando (*cough* Monsanto *cough*) with the discovery and humane natural breeding of super animals. If you’re confused, trust me, I was too. The cast of Okja is filled with luminaries putting on their best indie airs, and Swinton’s introduction is as weird as anything else happening in this movie. She sets up the premise in what essentially feels like the original pitch for the movie itself and leads us right into meeting the two real stars of this movie, Mija and Okja.
Mija, in what will assuredly be a breakout role for South Korean actress Ahn Seo-hyun, is incredible in this movie. Okja’s roster consists of the aforementioned Swinton, indie darling Paul Dano, multifaceted and entirely weird Jake Gyllenhaal and Walking Dead hero Steven Yeun and even with all that acting talent, Mija commands the screen every second she’s on it. She’s headstrong and fearless, going to ridiculous lengths to defend her best friend who just so happens to be a strange looking pig that also kind of looks like a hippo.
Mija, and her relationship with Okja, the super pig she’s helped raise, is how this movie sets out to deliver its message. I don’t think I can talk about Okja as part of this movie without expressing a bit of disappointment in the animation of the animal. With Okja being the titular character of this film, I would’ve liked for her to be a bit more realistic, whatever that means. I’ve never seen a super pig in real life, so who knows, but there was an inability to suspend disbelief in the animal with a computer model that would’ve looked at home on the Syfy channel. Almost no part of Okja felt real except the eyes, but fortunately that was enough.
It was a good choice to use pigs as the genetically modified super animal considering they’re naturally intelligent creatures. The way the animators were able to convincingly show intelligence through subtle movements and acknowledgments between Mija and Okja was incredible, solidifying their bond and building the tension surrounding them that explodes upon their separation.
Okja definitely has a message, one that doesn’t necessarily need exploration considering that the Animal Liberation Front is literally represented in the film and explains their role in no uncertain terms. What makes Okja more than just a long form version of those meat-is-murder videos that flood social media every few months is that Mija and Okja’s relationship is always the focal point, completely independent of the motions of the world around them. Mirando and the ALF have goals, but all Mija want is to save her friend and take her home.
This movie has some very intense moment, so much so that the MA rating it has on Netflix shouldn’t be taken lightly. Not even in subject matter alone; from the insights into how our food is produced to, surprisingly, how available private military groups are to corporations. What Okja does is represent the machinations of these industrial complexes in such a matter of fact way that it almost desensitizes the viewer to reality.
It’s easy to see this joyful pig running around, playing in waterfalls and pooping constantly and think that this is a lighthearted kids movie, so when you see fields of this genetically modified foodstuffs, fenced in by barbed-wire and systematically slaughtered, it’s almost easy to miss. This would make sense if the sequences were short but they almost come across as a fever dream you’re having while watching something akin to a kind of backwards Homeward Bound remake.
This is the genius of Bong Joon-ho; his ability to comment on modern day issues through the lens of something fantastical. How he surrounds a near mythological beast with finely acted cartoon characters and juxtaposing them with a narrative so realistic that the viewer becomes almost sedated is mesmerizing. There’s a lot of people that feel that this is what a live action Studi Ghibli movie would be like and I can’t disagree.
I can’t say if Okja is meant to change how people think about the food they eat. Like most art, I feel the interpretation is part of the experience. If you’re wondering if it changes me personally, I’d be lying if I said it did. I try to eat locally sourced organic food as often as I can but I also swing through McDonald’s for breakfast at least once a week. What I can say is that it made me think, and I appreciated the way that the narrative was presented. Okja also represents a success in the direction for new media outlets and the idea that these streaming services can continue to present filmmakers with a venue for their visions. Okja is a triumph in nearly all aspects! I just really wish I believed that that’s what a fictional super pig actually looked like.