The world seems to be growing increasingly complicated, as evidenced by the past several decades, years or even months of—well, everything. And with more problems come more proposed solutions; how do we solve the coronavirus pandemic, systemic racism, political division or world hunger? But behind every solution is a who, a what and a why. This is exactly what South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho confronts us with in his Netflix original Okja: as an egotistical CEO hailing from a powerful family proposes to solve world hunger with a new species of super-pigs bred for their meat, complications soon arise that question the validity of such a solution, as well as whose problems it ultimately solves.
Bong is no stranger to political filmmaking, with movies like Snowpiercer and Parasite under his belt, and Okja is no exception. The eponymous super-pig begins the movie as a pet to Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her father Hee Bong (Byun Hee-bong), sent to their farm by the Mirando Corporation as part of a promotional stunt drumming up enthusiasm for the release of super-pig-based products. When Okja is taken back by the Mirando Corporation, though, Mija goes on a quest to rescue her, becoming entangled with CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the eccentric Dr. Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) and an affable group of environmental extremists led by Jay (Paul Dano). This entanglement invites the audience into conversations surrounding genetic modification, the ethics of the meat industry and activism under capitalism.
Unsurprisingly, Bong has crafted a complex and fascinating look at society through a sci-fi lens with action aplenty. The way that Okja navigates the multifarious thematic territory of environmentalism in the context of capitalism is blunt, perhaps, but nevertheless deftly handled. Like many great “issue” films, this one is loud and angry, but also sporadically happy. One heart-pumping action sequence shows Mija and Okja successfully escaping Mirando’s forces through a lively public space, a chaotic explosion of joy amidst the justified outrage at the Mirando Corporation’s inhumane practices.
The performances are also largely superb, especially Tilda Swinton bringing the same degree of casual cruelty to this film as she did to Snowpiercer. Her take on Lucy Mirando (and her twin sister Nancy) is one that emphasizes the film’s critique of corporate activism: a shiny outside that proclaims to do good but ultimately covers up a more sinister, self-serving nature. Ahn Seo-hyun’s turn as Mija, too, is complex and provides an emotional backbone for the audience. She spends much of the film believably acting opposite a CGI creation, forging a seamless emotional connection with Okja (also allowing the audience to form an attachment, as well)—no easy feat. The animators that created Okja also deserve a mention here, creating a creature that feels not only real, but also immediately lovable from her first appearance on screen.
Speaking of performances, Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic Dr. Wilcox gestures towards one of the film’s most glaring issues: its rollercoaster tone that whips from deeply-felt joy to sorrow to anger, rarely taking any breaks in between. While Gyllenhaal’s over-the-top performance style is welcome elsewhere (think Nightcrawler), here it is simply overwhelming, especially on top of everything else this film throws at its viewer. Bong has always been one to blend genres beyond recognition, but here the violence, comedy, pathos, etc. hardly slows down; this emotional exhaustion, yes, is pointed, but perhaps a bit muddy in practice.
This muddiness extends to parts of the film’s narrative, which can feel well-structured in broad strokes but a little confusing moment-to-moment. Particularly out of place are digressions involving the Mirando Corporation’s leadership later in the film; having spent much of the film following Mija, Okja and the environmentalists, Bong shifts focus to Lucy Mirando and Dr. Wilcox at moments that feel more confounding than clarifying. Some may enjoy these detours or even find them necessary, but they ultimately feel like the most forgettable parts of the film.
In 2020, we are living in a world of problems (but what’s new?). But we’re also living in a world of potential solutions, often at the mercy of those with the loudest voices. CEOs and politicians seem to be not only speaking more and more on scientific and social issues like the coronavirus pandemic and police brutality, but also becoming authorities on these issues with a political agenda. While the superficial solutions that come from these sources can be well-intentioned, they can also create deeper problems in a society of people not willing or unable to see beyond the convenience of an immediate quick-fix. Lucy Mirando and her super-pigs are reminiscent of this relationship between the problems of the many and the solutions of the few in more ways than one.
On its surface, the super-pig project is an intriguing solution to world hunger: creating an inexpensive animal whose meat is plentiful and, apparently, delicious. Ethical questions, however, quickly arise regarding the use of genetic modification to create a new species purely to be slaughtered, as well as the anthropocentric idea that such an animal should exist only to serve human interests. Also, by allying Okja with Mija (and, through her adorable design, Okja with the viewer), the film casts Mirando and her company as villains who do not understand (or, more accurately, do not care about) the consequences of their actions.
Economically, too, Bong takes issue with the Mirando Corporation’s tactics surrounding the exploitation of super-pigs. While a cheap option to solve world hunger would seem to sell itself, the company foresees the aforementioned ethical questions and markets their product by sending a handful of super-pigs to farmers around the world to see who can raise the “best” one. Mija’s bond to Okja becomes secondary to money in the eyes of the company, and Hee Bong’s promise to buy Okja is just a pipe dream: the PR is too valuable for Mirando, and money takes precedence over mercy.
But all is not lost for Okja’s audience, as the film’s real target are those aforementioned “authorities” whose problematic solutions are too frequently thrust upon the world. There is the basic debate of the utilitarian “greater good” versus a more “human” outlook, but eventually the question shifts from “Do the costs of creating a creature like Okja outweigh the benefits?” to “Who benefits from a creature like Okja?” Mija, for instance, benefits from Okja as an individual by forming an emotional bond with her. On the other hand, the very existence of the superpigs derives from corporate greed, and it is indeed the corporation itself that would stand to benefit the most financially.
If a corporation contributes to a good cause but does it through lies and deception and with questionable motives, should the public look the other way? What is the true cost of bypassing the basic standards of ethics? If the Mirando Corporation wants only to stop world hunger, then why does the solution improve their profit margins? The public who seem to celebrate the Mirando Corporation’s success are ultimately at the mercy of the company’s greed, and remain only secondary beneficiaries of the CEO’s ostensible solutions to world problems.
So while Okja is a film about many issues—capitalism, the meat industry, hunger, eco-activism—it is perhaps most helpful to us now as a film about critical thinking and conscience during a crisis. We are a “great” country of freedom only if we are also conscientious as its constituents. Okja shows us how easy a surface-deep, quick-to-solution citizenry is to manipulate; slogans are all it takes to swindle a nation.