Director Bong balances hope and despair in a touching tale with political ambition

Aurélien Huet on Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Okja’ (2017)

Okja is a well-meaning, gentle, smart, caring, and courageous hippo-elephant-pig hybrid. But first and foremost, she’s Mija’s best friend. South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho returns with Okja, a delightful coming-of-age story filled with critiques of modern society and PR obsessed capitalism, as well as a splendid example of the direction cinema should be taking in the coming years.

Even prior to its release, Okja was met with controversy due to the formidable Netflix “stealing” the film away from cinema screens. During its Cannes preview, conservative French film critics even booed when the streaming service’s red logo appeared on screen. And yet, perhaps they realised that Netflix offered something major American studios cannot seem to do anymore — it offered something new and it gives artists total creative freedom. When Director Bong had suffered such a tumultuous time on his previous film, Snowpiercer (2013), with Hollywood studios cutting it against his will and with us poor souls in the U.K. still denied the opportunity to watch it, perhaps its unsurprising that he skipped the middle man and went right to the audience.

The film starts in 2007, in New York, where Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of the family-run Mirando mega-corporation publicly announces she will solve world hunger by sending 26 “super piglets”, bred from an unusually amazing pig found on a farm in Chile, to farmers around the world. Her promise is that ten years from then, she will hold a competition to find which farmer bred the best super pig and make it the new face of the corporation. However, it is quickly revealed that she is deciding the public and that the “eco-friendly” and “natural” animal is in fact just a lab experiment combining the DNA of various species. Fast-forward to 2017, where we meet Okja, one of the competition’s super pigs. Okja has been living a happy and peaceful life in a remote South Korean mountain, growing up alongside Mija, an orphan girl raised by her grandfather who has known the cuddly animal since the age of four.

On a fundamental human level, the first act of Okja tells a story that will resonate with almost everyone; portraying what life would be like if your imaginary friend was real, a live-action Totoro. And if E.T the Extra-Terrestrial (1984) taught us anything, it’s that these idyllic moments never last long. Things soon turn dire as vets sent by the Mirando corporation show up to examine the animal. Led by the eccentric animal show TV presenter, Dr Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal in a cartoonish performance), the scientists promptly announce the animal as the most impressive specimen and decide to take her back to New York, where she will be unveiled to the world.

From that point, as the determined Mija attempts to bring her best friend home, Okja takes an oddball blockbuster turn. The film flips its tone as it becomes one long chase, shifting between action flick and slapstick comedy, while also incorporating heartfelt emotional scenes. One of the most surprising yet delightful moments is during an amazing truck chase scene through Seoul, where we’re introduced to the Animal Liberation Front. Led by Jay (Paul Dano), the hilariously awkward group of non-violent, “non-terrorists” activists who seem to come straight out of The Big Lebowski (1998) or a Terry Gilliam film.

Okja is fun for the entire family, but being helmed by the director who brought us allegorical tales in The Host / Gwoemul (2006) and Snowpiercer, it also overtly critiques capitalism, greed and social media. Rather than be placated by a valuable gold pig as a replacement for Okja, Mija leaves her grandfather’s home, throwing cash to the ground to slow him down, aware that the old man would be more concerned with picking up the money than stopping her from running away. This seems to amount to a somewhat pessimistic message: in our neoliberal culture, it will always be profit over people. Or pigs. Money is a recurring theme, and the film’s conclusion even suggests that due to a non-ideological transnational corporate greed, money is the only true international language.

Like Bong Joon-ho’s previous work, Okja is a great example of transnational cinema. The action is set as much in the United States as in South Korea, and the international cast comes from a number of countries. Interestingly enough, the film displays English subtitles when Korean speakers discuss something, but not if there’s a character in the scene that translates what is being said. The director plays with this as one of the Korean characters betrays Mija with a wrong translation. The director also betrays the audience with the wrong translation. In the same scene, this ALF member played by Steven Yeun speaks Korean to Mija, the subtitles translating to us, “learn English, it will open doors for you.” But what is actually said in Korean is wholly different, merely telling her his name. Within such a subtle moment that most of us English-speaking audience members will fail to grasp (and that’s the point), director Bong has staged a stinging critique of western cultural imperialism.

Another aspect of the film is its environmental stand and its take on the modern food industry. After introducing us to the lovable creature, Bong Joon-ho ramps up our feeling as Okja is brought to a meat factory reminiscent of concentration camps. It would, however, be unjust to reduce the film to pro-vegan propaganda, despite the directors and writer own eating persuasion. In the first act, Mija’s grandfather is seen cooking chicken stew, which the young girl has no issue eating, and it saves room to mock low-blood level Vegan’s intent on leaving no footprint. Okja offers few answers.

What Okja does offer is bittersweet closure to the story of its main characters, but leaves dangling the wider societal implications. Whereas a Hollywood film may concern itself only with the fate of the characters we’ve invested in, and offer a message of consolation, director Bong allows no such comforts, finding a trepidatious balance between hope and despair.

Okja is available to stream on Netflix now.

Aurélien Huet

By Aurélien Huet

Aurélien Huet is a freelance journalist and multimedia producer based in London.