Pig Little Lies
To live in a capitalist culture, you have to live a lie, that’s the gambit of Okja, the new film from co-writer and director, Bong Joon-jo (Snowpiecer, The Host). How do we justify our way of life when so much of the natural world has been flipped for a profit? In Okja, nature has not only been commodified, it has been manipulated to create superpigs, which look like a hippo/elephant hybrid with the personality of a dog – every kid will want one for Christmas. Bong, and co-writer, Jon Ronson (Frank), take a story of the corporate meddling of an eco-system and heighten the stakes with a war of ideologies over the life of one superpig, Okja.
The film opens in 2007, with the CEO of the Mirando Corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), announcing to the press that her company is starting a breeding program. Superpigs will be sent to different locations around the world, monitored, and in 10-years one will be crowed the best superpig. The presentation is like an episode of Pokemon with its upbeat energy, kooky characters (Jake Gyllenhaal’s zoologist, Johnny Wilcox is a riot) and cute creatures. Lucy Mirando looks like she never moved out of her teenage bedroom with the braces on her teeth exemplifying her arrested development. The CEO makes large gestures with her hands like she’s the star of the opening ceremony of the Olympic games trying to fill a warehouse with her optimism; Swinton is stealing the movie before it has started. Lucy Mirando makes the superpig program sound great; it’s environmentally sustainable and could help feed a majority of the world’s population, but her final line jolts you out of the colourful public relations spin: “most importantly – they need to taste fucking good.”
Okja is introduced 10-years later living on a farm in rural South Korea with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong). Okja is allowed to roam free exploring the countryside with Mija. Okja puts the ‘super’ in superpig early in the film when she rescues Mija from falling off a cliff in a thrilling sequence that establishes Okja’s intelligence. The duo share secrets, whispering into each other’s ears, there are not enough heart emojis to express how wonderful these moments are in their company. Right when the film is bursting with cute, Wilcox arrives to proclaim Okja the best superpig and she’s shipped off to New York City via Seoul. Heartbroken, Mija sets off on a quest to get back her friend. Along the way Mija’s intercepted by the members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF: Paul Dano, Lily Collins, Steven Yeun, Daniel Henshall and Devon Bostick) who aim to leverage her bond with Okja to expose the truth about the Mirando Corporation.
The custody battle for Okja thrives in grey areas. Encounters with the superpig put the mantra of each group to the test; the exceptions are the ruthless former head of the Mirando Corporation, Nancy Mirando (Swinton); and Mija, a kid caught in the crossfire who just wants her friend back. Lucy Mirando wants to solve world hunger and hide the secrets of her corporation behind a glossy promotional campaign; the Animal Liberation Front seeks to free animals from horrid living conditions but they act like extremists leaving chaos in their wake; and Wilcox is trying to keep his dream alive from within the confines of a corporate machine. Each character is living with a fib that justifies their actions. Bong lays out the compromises of living in a society where companies place profit above all else. The central dilemma is that Okja has been designed in a lab and bred to be eaten – the ‘circle of life’ has been put on an express conveyer belt. The science fiction idea of genetically modified animals is leveraged in Okja to question the commodification of life. Do these superpigs have a soul? Bong often pushes the camera in close on Okja to focus on her eyes, a window into the soul. Okja’s eyes express a lot of emotion; remarkable considering the creature is a digital creation. There is proof of life in those eyes, the most enchanting and haunting image to resonate in Okja.
Operation Okja has the thrills to match the introspection with stunning chase sequences punctuated by moments of beauty that left me breathless. Prior to the Animal Liberation Front attacking a truck with Okja on-board, rose petals float through the air before the vehicle is rammed. In the same sequence, a violent clash between the authorities and the ALF reverts to slow motion as John Denver’s Annie’s Song plays, the iconic love song becomes a paradox amidst the pandemonium. These flourishes highlight Bong’s playfulness with each scenario and give the film a satirical edge. There are running gags about the blasé behaviour of Miranda Corp. employees and there’s one ALF member on the verge of passing out due to his strict vegetarian diet. Bong skewers the industrial food complex with delight.
Okja is hard to shake, mainly because it makes hypocrites of most of us (myself included). Empathising with the superpigs guarantees an express pass to the salad bar, but then the voices of rationalisation get loud as to why we choose a certain diet or lifestyle. Okja is more than a call to arms for vegetarians because the ideas can be transferred to how any corporation operates and how we vindicate our choices in their shadow.
The Popcorn Junkie