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A review of "Okja" (2017)

Okja is an R-rated kids' movie directed by Bong Joon-ho about a girl and an oversized, pig-like creature she takes care of as a pet that a multi-national corporation wants to butcher for food.  It is both exactly what you're picturing when you read that sentence and beyond expectation.  Kinda like the rest of Bong Joon-ho's filmography.

Okja, the titular creature, is a new species of farm animal that Mirando Corporation wants to mass market.  She's described as a "super pig," but looks more like a pug/hippo hybrid and has the intelligence, sentience, and social awareness of a Disney sidekick.  Okja is one of 26 super pigs that Mirando sent to different farms worldwide as part of a decade-long promotional tour to get the world used to a new source of meat.

Predictably, an adorable, over-sized cartoon character who can express boundless love becomes a source of attachment for the movie's protagonist, Mija, a young South Korean girl who has basically grown up taking care of Okja.  Cue Okja's apparent abduction by Mirando and a sprawling, international chase to get her back.

One of Okja's most impressive features is its ability to switch between so many different genres successfully without ever feeling like it's betraying its central purpose.  It's overall structured like a children's movie, a very grim ET.  When you see the corporate shenanigans behind the scenes of Mirando, it becomes a political satire.  When Mija goes exploring the city to rescue Okja, it becomes an adventure.  When the Animal Liberation Front shows up to break Okja out of her cage, it becomes an action movie.  When Okja is taken to a lab owned by Mirando, it becomes a horror movie.  And the grand finale is equal parts war drama and science-fiction.

This is the kind of movie with so many contrasting ideas and unique visuals that it should seem like a total mess, the kind of thing you get when nobody says, "No, that's not going to fit."  But Bong pulls it off.  The over-the-top performances from Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, which would look like career-ending histrionics anywhere else, are right at home.  The in-your-face social commentary, which would otherwise be groan-inducing, is apt and timely.  The violence and bloodshed, which should be an unforgivable tonal shift, are sadly, understandably inevitable.

It's a whirlwind - one that I'd definitely recommend.


The two movies that immediately come to my mind are The Fifth Element and Bad Boy Bubby.  Each has a completely different tone from Okja (and from each other), but all are movies where the title character's emotional journey is in tight focus regardless of the circumstances around them.  The genre-bending is ultimately incidental and secondary, and they're better for it.

Possibly even more impressive: Okja glamorizes the ALF and animal rights in general, yet I still liked it despite having mixed feelings (at best) on those topics. On the surface, I should hate this movie's politics - livestock farming, while unpleasant, is a necessary part of our day-to-day lives. Human beings evolved as omnivores and we've built our lives and societies in large part around food. To immediately shut off the production of meat, milk, and other animal-derived products would have such intense and catastrophic cultural and social consequences that it would probably be an apocalyptic-level event.

But perhaps the reason Okja engaged me so much is because it isn't arguing for such an intense shock to the system.  To me, the message here isn't simply "Meat is murder, let's ban livestock."  Instead, it's a warning against something more insidious.  The root of the conflict is in Mirando's unchecked power; as a mega-corporation, they have power over the police, the law, and international trade. They are allowed to indulge in unmonitored genetic experimentation and rampant exploitation of workers and consumers alike.

And by taking an indifferent stance to that power, by sitting back and letting Mirando do what they want simply because "capitalism works," the world allows a new species of hyper-intelligent, sentient animals that are known to be as capable and thoughtful as humans be led en masse to a slaughterhouse.  By shrugging and eating whatever meat is shoved our way, we become complicit.  Right now it's just chickens, and that's fine because chickens aren't people.  But what happens when the thing that comes next is a step higher on the evolutionary ladder?  How would we ever know that we're supporting what is basically genocide if our habit is always to turn a blind eye?

There may be a pro-vegan message on the surface of this movie, but what it's really warning us about is something we're already falling victim to.  Any movie that reminds us to put a check on power is a movie that needs to be seen.  Especially right now.