Despite having skyrocketed to a position of international acclaim, some of the best work of Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho remains under the radar. As a result of his commitment to maintain complete creative control over his work, some of his films have received minimal marketing and limited theatrical runs.
One such hidden treasure is 2017’s Okja. Buried in the depths of Netflix, this compelling and heart-wrenching tale is well worth the dig. Evading neat categorisation, Okja has elements of sci-fi, action, adventure and dystopian fiction and is shot through with searing social commentary.
It holds at its heart the love and companionship between a young girl called Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and a large, intelligent, boar-like animal, after whom the film is named. Having grown up with Okja, Mija is devastated when she finds out that her closest companion has been taken away by her creators. Okja is the product of a GM experiment that doubles as an elaborate marketing stunt: ten ‘superpigs’ were designed by a corporation headed by Nancy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), and then allocated to different farmers for the 10-year duration of their upbringing. Once grown, the intention is for them to be recalled, paraded in front of potential consumers, and then slaughtered for meat. Mija sets out on a rescue mission and quickly meets an animal rights activist group, who promise to help Mija bring Okja home.
The film opens with the idyllic and beautifully natural environment that Mija and Okja have grown up in. Okja fits in perfectly with the forest landscape, and the tender bond between the two is incredibly investing. We become accustomed to seeing Okja in this peaceful, green world, treated with only care and affection, and we are also made aware of the high intelligence, loyalty and advanced capabilities of this animal.
This blissful paradise contrasts violently with the capitalist, consumerist world that Okja was created in and for. Depicting an invented world with several uncanny parallels to our own, Okja exposes the gross immoralities, hypocrisies and warped priorities shown by humanity. The stark comparison between Mija’s stripped-back home and the industrialist New York to which she travels in pursuit of Okja highlights the troubling way in which human civilisation has moved away from a mutualistic relationship with the world and has instead come to revolve around commodities and profit.
Okja is first and foremost a poignant exploration of the meat industry. The murky, stone-cold chamber imprisoning the superpigs is eerily similar to the factory farm conditions that animals are kept in today. The sickening ordeal that Okja undergoes when introduced to her “new boyfriend” is a horrific nod towards the routine practice of artificial insemination that takes place in dairy farms. The declaration from the character Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) that he “loves animals”, just before torturing Okja, is a brutal parody of the millions of people in real life who claim to love animals, and perhaps even cherish pets, who simultaneously support their abuse by eating meat.
In many ways, Bong’s fictional film makes the meat industry more real to audiences than real-life documentaries. Actual footage of farming practices is often too terrible and graphic for people to watch. Obviously, no meat eater seeks them out; rather, they are avoided and resisted and could therefore be said to solidify the barrier between blissfully ignorant consumers and the upsetting reality. By fictionalising the issue and creating a fantasy creature on which to map realities, Bong makes the unwatchable watchable, draws in audiences rather than shocking them away, and allows his points to really sink in. The CGI creature on our screens is therefore more adept at appealing to our emotions and impressing truths upon us than real footage could ever be.
Having said all this, Okja is not a black and white anti-meat propaganda film. Mija, for example, is not vegetarian and we see her eating fish that she has caught from streams back home. Again, the stark contrast between this kind of simplistic, natural and respectful meat consumption and the gluttonous kind exhibited in Bong’s New York is telling. It shows just how far removed we are from a “natural” relationship with other living things. While Bong does not necessarily propose a meat-free solution, there is no doubt that he wishes to attack the capitalist, money-driven industry that commodifies and profits from sentient beings at any cost.
Distorted capitalist priorities are put under a brutal spotlight at the end of the film where Mija pleads for Okja’s life. The pure simplicities of love and compassion are pitted against the values of an icy businesswoman who sees living things as nothing more than customers – or products. Mija must understand the painful truth about what it is that capitalism will respond to. In order to have any chance of saving Okja, Mija must become a customer.
The ending of Okja is overwhelming, but perfectly balanced. It plays with a ‘happy ending’ that would satisfy most audiences in another film, but it is done in such a way that goes beyond the bitter-sweet; it is at once the happiest ending an audience could hope for, and the most devastating way to leave it. Bong seems to hand over responsibility to the audience at this point. Mija has done all she can for her Okja, and now we, the consumers who have the power to choose, must save the others.