Adventure parable indicts food industrial complex
Ahn Seo-Hyun and the super pig in “Okja”
To fulfill its stillborn efforts to revolutionize the film distribution model as we know it, Netflix would need to start making good movies.
Well, it just did.
“Okja,” the latest from South Korean genre stylist Bong Joon-ho (“Snowpiercer,” “The Host”), is the streaming giant’s overdue artistic shot across the bow. It’s the second Netflix film in a month from Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, and the first with legitimate merit since 2015’s “Beasts of No Nation” (a movie Netflix bought but didn’t produce) that deserves a big screen experience. Sadly, other than at a few select theaters in New York and LA, that’s an experience viewers will never get.
The silver lining? You can watch it right now if you’re a Netflix subscriber, whether on TV, computer, or (God forbid) smartphone.
“Okja” is, like Joon-ho films before it, a dark fantasy adventure parable about contemporary sociopolitical issues centered on the damage we’re doing to the planet. This one’s an indictment of the food industrial complex—both its obscene means and ends—by way of a “Girl and Her Dog” construct, except the dog is a super pig.
Mirando, a big U.S. multi-national conglomerate, has bred 26 super piglets from a new pedigree of porcine they apparently discovered in Chile. To prove their commitment to non-GMO foods, the company has given the piglets to organic farmers around the world to raise for the next 10 years, all through a glitzy media rollout.
Fast-forward to a decade later: Mirando sets to collect its property and cash in on its elaborate marketing stunt, while one heartbroken South Korean girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) defiantly embarks on a rescue mission to save the super pig Okja they’ve taken from her.
The connection Mija shares with Okja instantly recalls Elliot and E.T., and it’s established early on through wonderfully conceived moments that mix thrills with sentiment. But this is more Miyazaki than Spielberg, with a visual style and tone more akin to Asian anime than Hollywood blockbuster, albeit with R-rated language (indiscriminate F-bombs are dropped by American corporate and media stars) and cruel, violent scenes of animal abuse that will unsettle any person of any age.
Like a kindred spirit to the recent incarnation of Wonder Woman, Mija is an action heroine resolutely driven by moral virtue, conviction, and love. She receives unexpected aid from a leftist band of non-violent eco-terrorists called the Animal Liberation Front (yes, ALF for short) whose purpose is obvious: freeing animals from captivity and torture. They’re so vegan, they even snack on asparagus stalks.
Although Joon-ho’s films have always been socially conscious, “Okja” finds the filmmaker standing on his most unabashed soapbox yet even as he stages spectacular action sequences, mincing no words in his grievances with how we harvest meat for the masses and, more prophetically, warning of the Rubicon we’re broaching with the genetic manipulation of sentient animals.
The two sides of the capitalist impulse are squarely in Joon-ho’s sights—slick advertising deception on one end, ruthless profit calculation on the other—represented in the owners of Mirando, twin sisters Lucy and Nancy, both played by Joon-ho veteran Tilda Swinton. Her absurd, over-the-top villain is better calibrated than Jake Gyllenhaal’s caricatured reality TV star lackey, though neither have nary a nuance.
Ahn Seo-Hyun is the film’s righteous soul, yet still fragile and tender, while Paul Dano’s ALF leader is the paragon of noble compassion. Sure, this is a flatly biased polemic, but its emotional stakes are powerfully rendered.
As a result, “Okja” may only be adequate as satire, but it’s bursting with cinema and heart.
For more from Jeff, read his review of “My Cousin Rachel.”