One of the most notable filmmakers currently at work in South Korea, Bong Joon-Ho has a knack to mix dissimilar genres to startling results. In The Host, Bong changed monster cinema by combining it with realistic family drama. In his first film in English, Snowpiercer, the writer/director did a remarkable job by coating a social-issues movie with stylish action set-pieces.
Okja, Bong’s first movie to open in competition at Cannes, fits nicely in his filmography and it’s likely to transcend the art-circuit that has championed the filmmaker for nearly a decade: The movie will bypass theatres to open directly on Netflix.
Okja is both a coming-of-age adventure and a fierce indictment of capitalism and mass-produced food. It’s the kind of film for which the ubiquitous “viewer’s discretion advised” was invented.
An evil agrochemical company called Monsan… I mean, Mirando, peddles a new variety of pig whose size may help solve hunger problems around the world (not to mention generate humungous profits). Mirando ships the pigs to thirty farms around the world to discover the best method to raise them and masquerades the process as a contest.
Cut to ten years later. Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun), the granddaughter of an impoverished farmer in South Korea has become best friends with the largest pig of the bunch, the titular Okja. Predictably, Mirando comes knocking, presumably to parade Okja around as the best swine of the competition, and later -away from the cameras- slaughter it.
Mija won’t have any of it and, despite her age, lack of resources and barely functional English, she attempts to get her pig back. The corporation tries to coopt her, animal treatment advocates hope to recruit her, but Mija is incorruptible and steadfast in her efforts.
It doesn’t take much for Mija and the Totoro-like Okja to get the audience on their side. They are not even cloying, just two innocents treated as roadkill by more powerful entities. Bong Joon-ho is critical of the ethics (or lack thereof) of the fast-food industry. There are some horrifying shots from inside a slaughterhouse and a sickening example of animal husbandry.
Bong is a bit subtler regarding his opinion of unchecked capitalism. The villains of the piece are Lucy and Nancy Mirando (both played by Bong’s regular Tilda Swinton). Lucy goes out of her way to disguise the corporation’s ulterior purposes via marketing (best pig-in-show competition, Jake Gyllenhaal as a Crocodile Hunter-type), while Nancy believes all it takes for the public to adopt a product is cheap prices. She is not wrong.
Okja is an equal opportunity offender. Mija’s allies, the Animal Liberation Front, are not above allowing the pig to go through hell to get visual testimony of Mirando’s atrocities. They are, however, handy to have around and their assistance becomes more valuable as the movie progresses. The police, both in New York and Seoul, is more likely to protect corporate interests than people.
As with all Bong’s films, the visual component is askew, but attention-grabbing. A sequence involving Okja in a mall puts the proverbial bull in a china shop to shame. The film is not a lecture: Okja is dynamic and compulsively entertaining (although Gyllenhaal goes way over the top as an evil Bill Nye). The satire lands more often than not, with the added bonus of emotional investment.
You may not turn into a vegetarian after watching Okja, but it should give you pause. 4/5 prairie dogs.
Okja premieres on Netflix this Tuesday 28th.