Film Review: Okja

New from Korean director Bong Joon-ho (best known for Snowpiercer) is a movie that, in the tradition of Charlotte’s Web and Babe, brilliantly illuminates the disconnect between children’s instinctive recognition of farmed animals as sentient, lovable creatures and most adults’ perception of these beings as little more than sources of food and revenue.

Although foreign-language films typically get far less exposure than their American counterparts, the fact that the popular streaming media giant Netflix both produced and distributes Okja lends it greater social capital. Unlike other studios, Netflix is also known for giving far more creative control to directors than the majority of its competitors.

Starring Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Ahn Seo-hyun, Okja explores the unbreakable bond between Okja, a humongous yet gentle, smart, and loyal genetically engineered pig, and Mija, the young girl who raised her in the remote mountains of South Korea. We follow their tumultuous journey to New York City and its environs as the corporate monolith behind Okja’s creation, Mirando, forces their separation in the process of reclaiming and exploiting their “super pig.” (See official trailer below for more details.)

As someone working professionally in the field of animal welfare – including farm animal issues — this film is of particular interest. Much to my delight and surprise, the New York screening I attended included a Q&A immediately afterwards with the film’s screenwriter, Jon Ronson (best known for his books The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test, and his screenplay for the 2014 film Frank). My perspective on Okja is informed by both my own perceptions of the film and what I gleaned from the Q&A.

First and foremost, one of the film’s greatest strengths is the way it embraces complexity and avoids oversimplification. While it unabashedly casts shame on the most egregious practices of many large corporations — greed for profits at the expense of humanity and integrity, destruction of nature, disregard for employee well-being, exploitation of non-Western cultures for marketing collateral, mass deception and manipulation via greenwashing, quests for personal power, and an obsession with appearances — it also exposes the weaknesses of many who are dedicated to fighting these practices, as well as acknowledging some of the most severe societal challenges for which there are no easy answers.

The Mirando Corporation’s stated goal in creating its “super pigs” is to address the very real issue of a dwindling food supply as human population growth continues to expand beyond what can be sustained over the longer term. In an attempt to appeal to the environmentally minded, CEO Lucy Mirando touts its pigs as consuming less feed, producing fewer excretions, and being raised in “natural” settings around the world. Although there is far more to the story than she lets on, this claim is precisely calculated to speak to the growing ranks of a more conscious breed of consumer, including those averse to genetically modified organisms (GMO) in their diets. Although the Mirando Corporation is a fictitious entity, its behavior is all too familiar.

One of the major forces that emerges in opposition to the Mirando Corporation is the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a real activist organization established in the 1970’s and referenced in Free the Animals, a book written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) president Ingrid Newkirk, which Jon Ronson read as he wrote the screenplay. Deliberately leaderless, decentralized, grassroots, and intensely mission-driven, the ALF has been perpetually besieged throughout its history by challenges both external (including imprisonment of its activists and labeling of its members as terrorists) and internal (including lack of systematic coordination and training, differing interpretations of its credo and operating philosophy, and frequent personality clashes). Okja does not flinch from exposing these aspects in a variety of awkward manifestations.

As Jon Ronson shared with us, this was very purposeful, as Bong Joon-ho felt strongly that the ALF should not be portrayed as unequivocally heroic. He felt that demonstrating the shortcomings of both sides would be more authentic, avoid oversimplification, and keep audiences more engaged — particularly as in the case of both the ALF and Mirando Corp., several of these shortcomings are played for comedy. In fact, one of Jon Ronson’s key roles in expanding Bong Joon-ho’s original draft of the script was to flesh out the ALF characters so they seemed more convincing and less one-dimensional. To do this, he actually met with a few real-life ALF members to help inform his writing.

As someone who has long followed the animal protection movement and is now fortunate enough to have a career in it, I found both the strengths and weaknesses associated with the ALF characters to ring true. Like any other social change movement, animal protection is rife with factions and infighting, encompassing a vast spectrum of viewpoints that often conflict with each other. Among the key challenges for everyone in this field is navigating its highly complex and ever-shifting terrain to find a place and develop a viewpoint within it. One of the central dilemmas within the realm of animal protection that I encounter constantly, and that the film skillfully highlights, is the murky ethical territory one enters when forced to choose between the well-being of a single individual animal versus that of the group to which it belongs — however that group may be defined.

Even the film’s title character, a computer-generated wonder, evades oversimplification. She shows herself to be indisputably intelligent, affectionate, playful, and fiercely dedicated to her caretaker. As an orphan, Mija has only her grandfather and Okja to call family, and we soon discover that relation through blood does not automatically confer greater closeness. Mija and Okja literally risk life and limb to protect each other, and upon seeing how the two interact, it’s not hard to understand why. Nonetheless, the film never lets us forget that Okja is an animal, with all the various messy bodily functions that entails — along with the occasional bout of hostile behavior that a panicked state can induce toward even a trusted caretaker.

Another area where the film shines is its timeliness and skill in capturing the zeitgeist shaped by current developments within the spheres of politics, business, and media. Although there is an obvious element of caricature woven throughout the film, the dynamics it encapsulates are spot-on. Among these is the power of social media tools (especially Instagram and Twitter) to influence public perception. Recent shifts in the way businesses operate to attract the socially conscious customer – even if it involves Machiavellian methodology – are very much at the heart of this film. As far as politics, it becomes immediately obvious to the viewer that Lucy Mirando and her twin sister Nancy were modeled after Ivanka and Donald Trump, respectively, which Jon Ronson confirmed during the Q&A.

Also in line with current cultural trends is Bong Joon-ho’s decision to feature strong females as the film’s central characters – whether benevolent in the case of Mija or sinister in the case of Nancy – and even to make the film’s namesake animal female. Among the many challenges Mija faces is her grandfather’s condemnation of her behavior as unbecoming of a girl, insisting that it’s time for her to “stop playing with a pig and meet a boy,” with the hope that she will marry someday soon. However, in contrast to the meek and demure behavior expected of her as both a female and a child, Mija demonstrates extraordinary independence, bravery, tenacity, and fighting spirit. Her journey to liberate Okja is powered largely by her own ingenuity and sheer force of will.

The film demonstrates sound research on farm animal welfare issues (Jon Ronson later shared that he and Bong Joon-ho had actually visited a slaughterhouse as part of their preparation for making it). Although Okja is a fictitious creature, she serves as an effective proxy for food animals and their current plight, more severe now than it has been at any other time in human history due to the prevalence of factory farming and the horrific suffering it inflicts on approximately nine billion animals worldwide from the moment they are born up to and including the moment they are killed.

Among the various issues brought to light in the film is the extensive genetic modifications of farmed animal species that have taken place over the past several decades to yield more meat per animal more quickly at lower cost. The film essentially follows this trend along a trajectory toward its logical – and seemingly inevitable – conclusion in the absence of strong countervailing forces. For this reason, per Jon Ronson, Bong Joon-ho felt a dire sense of urgency in creating this film, convinced that the time when it would merely mirror rather than foretell reality was close at hand. He very much wanted Okja to be made and completed before that actually came to pass.

When asked whether the film was designed to promote a vegetarian or vegan (combined in writing as “veg*n”) agenda, Jon Ronson indicated that was not specifically the goal. Chicken and fish are visibly and regularly consumed by Mija and her grandfather, presented without the slightest shade of judgment. Although many veg*ns would consider that speciesist, it is worth noting that in the film, the chickens are raised almost as far beyond the confines of industrial production as it’s possible to go, and Mija catches the fish herself directly from bodies of water in the area. Jon Ronson mentioned that Bong Joon-ho had been vegetarian for about a month during the making of the film, but was no longer continuing as such. Jon himself is vegetarian except for fish (categorized by some of his UK compatriots as a “fish-and-chip-o-crite”). His feeling was that if people decided to become veg*n after seeing the film, that would be great, but that dietary decisions are highly personal, and preaching was not the intent. That said, he felt confident that among Okja’s future audiences, “there are a lot of people out there who don’t yet know they’re vegetarian.”

I asked Jon Ronson what inspired the creation of the film. As someone steeped in animal advocacy campaigns both professionally and personally, I was curious about whether the initial spark arose from direct exposure to awareness-raising content or whether it originated from a more personal experience. Jon responded that Bong Joon-ho had been driving home late one night and had a vision of a very large animal looking sad, and got to wondering about the source of that sadness. The film represents his creative journey in answering that question.

While the film has many sad moments and is at times difficult to watch, it is by no means unrelentingly grim. There are also many moments of joy, humor, and hope. Without giving anything away, the ending is mixed. There is an element of tragedy, but not in the typical sense that one might expect based on the story arc pattern of many animal movies. In what is perhaps one of Okja’s most masterful strokes, the lingering sorrow it imparts is through leading us to contemplate — and yearn to change — the real world we actually inhabit, more than the fictitious one Bong Joon-ho has created.

I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to see Okja and hear directly from its screenwriter in one of the few U.S. theaters where it’s currently showing. If it’s not playing at a theater near you, I highly recommend downloading it from Netflix.

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