Okja (2017)

Directed by Joon-ho Bong


In Okja, a girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) grows up with a genetically engineered super pig, Okja, who is then reclaimed by the Mirando corporation, with their eyes set on slaughtering the pig for food and profit.

Mija pursues Okja from the mountains where she lives all the way to Seoul, and with some unexpected help from the Animal Liberation Front, she nearly saves Okja.  Well, they do save her, until the ALF, led by one character’s purposeful mistranslation, departs, intending to let the corporation recapture Okja, now armed with a hidden camera so they can expose the corporation’s real behavior.

The other side to this story, the more satirizing portion, focuses on the corporation’s desperate attempts to spin this story in their favor.  Okja’s capture, as well as Mija’s panicked attempts to save her, has been all over social media, so Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the company’s CEO, invites Mija to the super pig competition in New York to be reunited with Okja onstage, thus spinning the story in their favor.  This section of the story involves blatant manipulation of the truth in an effort to spin the story, and it’s a clear commentary on the way our news coverage and large corporations work today.

You could even extend this to the way celebrities are presented to the world, through rounds of publicists and a carefully-constructed image.  Jake Gyllenhaal, arguably the most famous actor in the movie, plays Johnny Wilcox, the ‘face’ of the Mirando corporation.  When Mija first meets him, she is in awe and asks for his autograph.  Though we’re not led to believe he has any substantial involvement in the company or anything of substance behind his wacky exterior, Wilcox only spirals more and more out of control as the story wears on.  He’s meant to be the person who embodies the entire company, and in the one scene where the Mirando board gathers to figure out what to do about Okja and Mija, Wilcox is separated in another room entirely.  He plays on his phone, sitting behind a glass pane like a kid on time out.

The plot of this movie is pretty simple.  The “lock in” moment would seem to be when the ALF tells Okja their plan, and everything is put in place so that we will build to when Okja is presented at the event in New York, except that this moment happens halfway into the movie.  There is a lot of time upfront devoted to showing Okja’s and Mija’s daily life in the mountains, and this is probably the best part of the movie.  Okja is so fully realized, blending a combination of animal traits (hell, it even cries) so that the animal feels both familiar and remarkably human.

The rest of the film, once Okja is captured, feels less creative and much more mean-spirited, though considering who the ‘meanness’ is thrown at, it feels deserved.  Joon-ho Bong’s satire, at least here and in The Host, feels very on the nose.  He’s telling a story, but the real story is what he’s commenting on.  In The Host, he was pointing out the way the media capitalizes on mass hysteria, making us unnecessary fearful and riled up in the face of a crisis, and in Okja, his commentary is directed at the damage control in a large company in the time of social media.  Wherever Okja is, there always seems to be a camera, whether a broadcast camera, a cell phone, or even a hidden camera.

Part of the focus on this commentary is because our protagonist, Mija, is very powerless within the narrative.  She fights to save Okja in Seoul, but Okja is saved because of the ALF’s involvement.  Then, in the middle of the story, Okja is brought to New York, and she literally just goes along for the ride.  Instead of stretching the story’s plausibility to make her a more active character (realistically what’s she going to do?), the story focuses on the people around her, utilizing it’s talented ensemble (Swinton, Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito, Steven Yeun, Paul Dano).  Swinton’s character becomes more desperate to save face, not just for her company’s sake but to protect her ego as well, Gyllenhaal spirals downwards in an alcoholic daze as he tries to grasp his decreasing relevance to the company, Esposito goes behind Lucy’s back to bring her twin sister Nancy back into the company, Yeun makes up for an earlier lie which saw him kicked out of the ALF, and Dano, the most stabilizing force, finds it in himself to forgive Yeun.

So each of the other characters has something to do or at least work on, and Mija just kind of waits around.  Still, because she’s just a kid, there’s nothing she could really do.  Because you’d like for your main character to have an active role in the story, the second act of the film may have been rushed so that we can get to the point where Okja and Mija meet again, and Mija can regain some of the power.  She is only powerful when she’s with Okja because she can communicate with her pet and get her to do things no one else can.

That rush to the event in New York feels paper thin, in a lot of ways.  The ALF has infiltrated the Mirando’s computer system, and when Okja is brought onstage, they play footage of her being force to mate with a male super pig, from only a couple nights before.  The crowd is horrified, and Paul Dano’s character, Jay, reminds Mija not to look at the screen behind her and to instead just follow him to safety.  The brutality of the incident onscreen and the shock of the moment might work well if Jay had first instructed Mija not to look at the screen earlier in the film.  Instead, he sneaks into her hotel room and tells her on the day of the event, and because it’s so close to the actual event, the moment isn’t as impactful as it could be.  In other words, there was no time for his instruction (and the mystery of his instruction) to stew in Okja’s mind (as well as our own) before the moment comes.

There is also the sense that the event is much smaller in scale than it is first presented as.  The buildup to this event in New York makes it seem like it’s an Apple event with thousands of attendees and Steve Jobs coming onstage to present the newest iphone, but instead the location (on the streets of New York) feels much smaller, like an outdoor “concert” hosted by The Today Show.

Eventually Okja, recaptured, is taken to the farm where she and the other pigs are to be slaughtered.  It’s a brutal sequence, made more brutal by the fact that we know this is how animals are slaughtered, in assembly line fashion.  Mija finds Okja, crammed in line, and she saves her right about she’s about to be killed.  This is when Mija is an active character again, and it’s highly improbable that the man who’s been on auto-pilot, killing pig after pig, would suddenly stop, even if there was a little girl present.  Nancy Mirando shows up and orders the pig killed until Mija offers her a small golden pig statue which her father had given her as compensation for losing Okja in act 1.

That’s how Okja is saved, and the story ends with Mija, Okja and a second, smaller pig living in some kind of bliss, back in the mountains.  Despite the horror of the slaughterhouse, registered by both Mija and Okja, they seem to be happy enough back home.  Okja sits down to eat with her father, and the story ends much in the same way The Host does.

The plot feels too loose and all over the place, but I really enjoyed this movie, particularly because of how easy it is to fall in love with Okja.  There is probably some manipulation of your emotions going on here, as Okja is not really any different than a dog in a movie because you never want to see the innocent, lovable animal die.  So putting Okja in a slaughterhouse is almost too easy as a dramatic device.  Still, it worked, and there was enough work and time upfront put into making sure we had a reason to root for Mija and like Okja.

The best parts of the movie are the small touches within a given scene.  There are plenty such moments between Mija and Okja in act 1, but there are also more that show various characters’ desperation.  When Mija announces her plan to head to Seoul to save Okja, her father tries to get her to stay, so Mija causes a scene by breaking her piggy bank and scrambling for as much money as she can find.  When her father sees her picking up coins from a certain spot in the ground, he quickly races to that spot and kicks the coins away, as if that will solve anything at all.

Her father, Hee Bong (Hee-Bong Byun) had a similar kind of desperation in The Host, particularly in the scene in which the entire family loudly mourns their daughter who is presumed dead.

Okja is a little all over the place even in terms of tone, but that too is part of the point.  The characters who we take seriously are the ALF, and the Mirando corporation is full of wacky characters who hardly resemble reality.  Again, that’s where the satire and commentary comes in.  But Joon-ho Bong does a capable enough job of giving us a little of everything, including comedy, heartwarming characters, suspense, broad comedy and a message.  This is a movie that feels like it’s saying something about our world, and I think that’s a good thing, even if the message is a little heavy-handed at times.

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