My, my, this is turning out to be a politically charged year for movies. Even Netflix couldn’t stay out of a firefight. Though I am curious that this particular film, which may be one of the most brutal critiques of neo-liberal agendas I’ve seen in years, has not caused a stir among American Democrats or Republicans. Perhaps it was the Netflix format, or because the more overt vegan message of the film may have overshadowed any other interpretation the movie could provide. Regardless, we got a window before the Awards Season deluge, so screw it: we’re talking about this movie today.
Ten years ago, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) leads the Mirando Corporation as its new CEO and presents to the world a species of biologically engineered superpigs, pork that’s as large as a rhinocerous and apparently produces less waste than regular pigs. The superpigs are given to breeders all around the world for a competition to discover which method would lead to the best possible superpig. Among these creatures is Okja, who resides in South Korea with her farmer and the farmer’s granddaughter, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), and lo’ and behold Okja looks like the winner after being analyzed by Mirando’s public face, the zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal). So Okja is taken away to New York City, but Mija isn’t willing to let Okja go and pursues her across the globe, putting her on a collision course with Animal Liberation Front (ALF) led by Paul Dano as Paul Dano (sorry his character’s name is Jay).
A big strength that this movie has is, if nothing else, the relationship between Mija and Okja is actually believable. Which is surprising as Okja is basically a CGI character and quite a noticeable one at that. While the superpig definitely looks fake from any angle, it’s the way this little girl acts around it that sells you on their relationship. Capturing the essence of a kid and their pet movies in the first few minutes of the film is critical, as their not much else going during our first act until Gyllenhaal graces your presence with a flamboyant Steve Urwin-esque performance. Another reason the Mija-Okja connection works, is that it grounds the character in base emotion for you to get invested in before talking about much bigger ideas in the rest of its run time. This is how you do it Arnofksy, in case you’re reading my reviews after illustrious critique of your magnum opus.
From the plot synopsis, and the trailer, you might reasonably assume this is primarily a pro-animal rights, anti-slaughterhouse film, and while the movie certainly dedicates enough screentime to support this agenda, that’s not the only target the director, Bong Joon-ho, had in mind. Joon-ho’s last film was Snowpiercer, which shot itself to being one of my favorite science fiction films of all time thanks to its stellar direction and its uncompromising blast against the concept of capitalism and status quo. While I don’t always agree with what he’s getting at, its the execution that makes me appreciate what he’s trying to say, as he does in this film to critique the current state of the pursuit of liberal ideas, especially in the digital media age.
See, the movie presents two groups advocating liberal goals: the Mirando Corporation and the ALF. The ALF are all young idealists lead by Paul Dano, and seemed committed to pursuing what they believe in…but they’re borderline clueless on how to effectuate change. Plus, all their attempts at planning coordinated strikes against Mirando, most of their plans backfire in the worst way (or best way, if you’re laughing at them) imaginable. Meanwhile, Mirando Corp. tries to have a squeaky clean facade of being caring towards the environment while at the same time trying to expunge the slightest blemish that could negatively affect their brand; even though deep down, it’s a traditional corporation with bottom lines, cold production facilities, and many executives who want to secure their financial power. To be honest, I had a difficult time not being reminded of the tug-of-war depicted during the 2016 Democratic Primaries between Bernie Sanders’ supporters and Hillary Clinton. The latter’s dress sensibilities are curiously adopted by Tilda Swinton’s Mirando…who you also learn very early on that she has a twin sister who’s far more ruthless and calculating than her image-obsessed counterpart. Gee, that sounds awfully familiar.
Which is why I was quite surprised that conservative outlets didn’t bother talking about Okja at all. I mean, it does a much better job at critiquing the state of the Democratic Party moreso than any chuckle head working with Breitbart or Fox News could come up with. But perhaps they were too focused on the pro-vegetarian propaganda that the film very much employs. And what I mean is that the filmmakers take you on a tour of the worst of mistreatment of animals in the meat-packing industry concerning forced breeding (which is an extremely difficult scene to watch), cattle living conditions, and subsequent terminations of their lives. Surprisingly, these scenes are depicted with the aforementioned CGI superpigs, and yet the effect of watching how horrid these conditions are still the same. It benefits the film by sidestepping typical issues with capturing animal abuse on films due to union restrictions, and allowing effective camerawork to put you right in the middle of the depravity.
But a slight downside is that the majority of all of these effective moments come in the second half of this two hour movie. Aside from the bonding between Mija and Okja, there’s not much to hold your attention in the first half. Some quiet, contemplative moments are broken up by some awkwardly-written dialogue, and it’s a considerable stepdown for Bong Joon-ho, considering how effectively the opening act of Snowpiercer sunk its teeth into my psyche. Also, the tone of the various actors feel highly uneven. Gyllenhaal and Swinton feel like they’re in a different movie than the one Paul Dano thinks he’s in, which are both different from the one featuring Mija’s actress. Speaking of which, this little girl is a true find. Several accomplished actors have major difficulty performing with green screen and computer generated effects, but Ahn Seo-hyun truly sells you on what her character is going through.
Still, while the film is far from perfect, I still appreciated its very interesting discussion on complex subjects while also giving you a clear, motivated protagonist in a simple story. It’s on Netflix forever more, but I would have happily paid to see this movie in theaters as a high…