Imagine for a moment a story like Pete’s Dragon – a tale of a child and a mythic companion on a journey that sees them through trying times. Stories like these remind us of the good within others and inspire it within ourselves. They take root in our heart, galvanizing the viewer to see beyond the fable and into the truth it presents about our world. This is the great and terrible gift of the Bong Joon Ho-written/directed Netflix Original Okja, a seemingly innocent story whose Grimm-Tales-twist involves a bad guy who doesn’t want to just contain or kill the mythic companion, but to serve it up as dinner.
For ten years, fourteen-year-old Mija (An Seo Hyun) has raised and cared for Okja, an enormous pig. Their companionship means everything to them both. When the original owners of Okja, the Mirando Corporation, reclaim her, Mija engages in a single-minded effort to rescue Okja in hopes of restoring the peace they once knew. Finding herself beset between the greedy Mirando Corporation and the morally superior Animal Liberation Front (A.L.F.), Mija’s innocent quest to save her friend rapidly devolves into a battle for the soul of man.
Most American audiences will be familiar with director Joon Ho’s larger-than-life, yet insular approach to storytelling from his 2013 caste system rumination Snowpiercer (currently streaming on Netflix). With Okja, Joon Ho continues his exploration of humanity under the guise of food consumption. This makes the world of Okja conflictingly simple. The world’s population continues to grow and resources are depleting, so Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton in her most manic performance yet) of the Mirando Corporation devises a revolutionary plan to cultivate a super pig capable of providing more food for consumers while using less natural resources and creating a smaller emission footprint. Thus the super pig is born. Overseeing the project via constant digitally-transmitted updates is the ever-vigilant animal expert Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal in a slightly zany version of the beloved Steve Irwin). He observes remotely as a single super pig is sent to a farmer in one of 26 separate countries. The purpose of this is to see which of the 26 indigenous farming traditions cultivate the healthiest super pig. This sets into motion the central conflict between three entities representing different moral perspectives.
On one end, the Mirando Corporation represents corporate greed masked as consumer aid. Born out of a genuine desire to use the company’s position to help others, it rapidly becomes clear that the creation of the super pig is a PR stunt to bolster sales and increase their corporate wealth. CEO Lucy Mirando is bent on reinventing both herself and the company, going so far as constantly upgrading her personal aesthetic, while also ingratiating herself into the designs of the company. The super pig program is her ultimate rebirth and its success marks her final coming out, making her an unrelenting force behind its success. Unsurprisingly, by the end, Lucy Mirando reveals herself just as morally corrupt like her predecessors; however, Joon Ho and co-writer Jon Ronson (Frank) generate real shock by slowly peeling back the curtain throughout Okja, revealing the sordid underbelly of the Mirando Corporation’s practices. This challenges the audience to consider not just what they consume, but the creation process.
On the other end of the spectrum is A.L.F. as a representation of the corruption of personal ideas masked as consumer protection. Personified perfectly by the five-member team of Red (Lily Collins), Silver (Devon Bostick), Blond (Daniel Henshall), K (Steven Yeun), and team-lead Jay (Paul Dano), these individuals operate off of a forty-year-old manifesto that directs them to do no harm. Considering that they seek to stop Mirando Corporation’s super pig program, a “do no harm” policy offers many of Okja‘s sillier moments as the team confronts their corporate adversaries with continual shouts of “we’re not terrorists!” as they attempt a carjacking or quiet whispers of “this is non-lethal” as they choke someone into submission. Their extremism continues to reveal itself when it’s discovered that one member of the team is so devout to their mission that he refuses to eat anything at all because it will increase their carbon footprint. In truth, A.L.F. presents itself as an organization devoid of harm, yet in order to fulfill their mission, they purposefully initiate the greatest of harms.
In the center of these morally questionable groups lies Mija. She, and her life amid the serene and beautiful mountains of Korea, signify the pure balance of man with nature. Here resides the hopefulness that grounds all of Okja as the audience witnesses Mija and Okja play, trust, and live amid the wonders of their mountain top home. Once Okja is taken, Mija sets forth to reset the balance. In the majority of stories, Mija would be the naïve heroine who teaches everyone the importance of standing up for what’s right after, herself, losing faith. Mija is not that character and this is not that story. Rather, Joon Ho and Ronson present Mija as fully engaged and in charge of her fate; utterly unstoppable and unrelenting in her desire to bring Okja home. Without concern for herself, she slides down mountain sides, hurls herself at glass walls, and engages in a foot chase after a truck that rivals most summer action sequences you’ll see in theaters. When surrounded by those foreign to her, she’s quick to trust and even faster to realize that you can’t trust everyone. She knows what she’s capable of accomplishing; refusing to stop even when the odds are against her. Even up to the final act, Mija creates her own salvation in an emotionally satisfying reminder of her worth.
Okja is the kind of story that will render audiences silent, leaving the experience feeling somehow hopeful despite being crushed beneath the weight of it. This is, perhaps, Boon Ho’s most powerful film and his most complex. Packed with colorful characters, wonderfully staged action sequences, and a performance by Dano that signifies what a powerful performer he’s become, Okja is absolutely not to be missed. It’s a journey that begins in the light and ends in the light, but the darkness you must travel to get there is mighty indeed. Don’t worry, Mija will see you through.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Curious about Bong Joon Ho’s last film Snowpiercer? Our 2014 review is available at CLTure.