Laurie heaps some more praise on one of the year’s most lauded releases.
As a lover of weird and wonderful cinema, both British and international, nothing gives me the warm and fuzzies more than rolling my eyes at someone else’s excitement over something that has just reached mainstream appreciation, and uttering the words, “I saw that about six weeks ago.” Okja (a film I saw about six weeks ago) has received praise for its eclectic plot, imaginative artistry, and for tackling the tough subjects. With a little help from Netflix, Plan B Entertainment and various animal rights groups on social media, this stunning film has officially reached a mainstream audience, which is surprising and remarkable considering it touches on a topic that a lot of people would find just a little too uncomfortable for entertainment: the meat industry.
I’m not going to hide it – I’ve been vegan for over five years (and by that, I mean that my diet consists of Pringles, Oreos and Rum), so I’m welcome to and privy to a lot of cinema that would make all the sweet-hearted innocent low-fat diced chicken eaters cringe. Five years ago, Okja would’ve been thrown into a junk bin with the plant-based food documentaries, hemp pyjamas, and the lentil soup that’s best served in the boots of a proletarian revolutionary. Twenty years ago, we would’ve only watched a film like this if we were forced to sit in a chair with our eyelids held open with a wire speculum, A Clockwork Orange-style. Now, A Clockwork Orange is very much the new black, and it is this vegan’s belief that the world is ready. Satirical cinema, like activism itself, is finally getting its mainstream approval.
Okja is very much a film that tells us some pretty ugly truths about our food industry, pokes fun at two-faced marketing, and grabs unethical companies by the manberries and has them sit in the naughty chair. The plot is whimsical, humorous, with hints of fairy-tale and nods to Japanese animation. Then, as the story moves forward and a darker sort of reality takes over, we are carried away like Okja in her livestock container, sinking deeper and deeper into the horrific world of mass consumerism and animal agriculture that ultimately leads us to a harrowing, knot-in-your-throat and crying as hard as a white supremacist in handcuffs, visit to the slaughterhouse. The film moves seamlessly from playful fantasy to corporate horror, told often from the point of view of ‘the product.’
Director Bong Joon-ho’s film features a Korean female lead (Mija, played by the young and talented Ahn Seo-hyun), a cast of English-speaking supporting actors including the ever so strange and brilliant Tilda Swinton; an eccentric, hilarious and satisfyingly dark Jake Gyllenhaal and Okja herself, a magical, mischievous, intelligent and larger-than-life creature who, with fierce determination and a wonderfully loving nature, insists that she belongs as part of our world, part of our family, and definitely not as part of our sandwich.
The story begins with Lucy Mirando (played by Swinton) who has risen meteorically to become CEO of the Mirando Corporation after her grandfather; father and sister have seemingly made psychopathic and evil decisions that drove the company into the ground. Lucy announces that she has been breeding a special kind of superpig that could revolutionise the food industry and create a new idealistic, progressive and eco-friendly identity for the company. Twenty-six of the best pigs are sent to locations around the world to be raised by farmers, and ten years later, one will be crowned the winner.
Flash forward to Mija, who has lived happily and carefree on a farm in the beautiful countryside of South Korea with her grandfather and her superpig, Okja. Mija believes that Okja is special, and when the Mirando spokesperson and zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal) visits Okja and declares her best superpig of all, it’s clear that Okja is far too special to stay in Korea with her family. Okja is a product, and as a product, she is destined for a short life and a terrifying demise that begins with shipping her to America. Mija travels to Seoul to rescue Okja, and jumps on a truck as it drives to a nearby airport where Okja will be sent to New York. Mija meets the ALF or Animal Liberation Front, who are also trying to rescue Okja and all the other superpigs before they’re sent to slaughter and consumed as part of the Standard American Diet. Their plan is to fit Okja with a camera so that she can film the evil deeds of the Mirando Corporation from inside their operation, but that means letting Okja continue on her journey to become a sacrifice for the greater good.
Okja is an extraordinary example of cinema that plays with two starkly different genres at the same time. As a form of entertainment, it has a compelling story, fantastic characters, and a truckload of whimsy and humour, especially in light of Okja’s hilarious parlour trick of firing her backdoor cannon and pelting unsuspecting corporate donkeys with gigantic balls of poop. As a meaningful and enlightening artform, it invites you to consider not only the beauty of Okja as a magical creature but also to look at the way this creature might fit into our world. Once you step beyond the threshold of the wide green farm and into a slaughterhouse, it’s disjointing. It doesn’t just slap you in the face with the horrors of industry and processing; it puts a bag over your head, ties a rope around your neck and suffocates you with it.
Okja is more than a tale of one girl’s love for her best friend. In the end, when Mija walks away from the slaughterhouse, she represents hypocrisy itself. Mija embodies the naivety of a consumer who knows very little and wants to keep it that way, thereby having no real responsibility to change anything. It shines an uncomfortable spotlight on corporations and the masks they often wear in order to prostitute themselves to the theme of the season. With the Mirando Corporation assuring a crowd of enthusiastic supporters that their product is non-GMO and Eco-friendly, they know that deep down their consumers all feel guilty. They all want change. They wish these things could be different. Though they’re unwilling to give up on the basic luxuries they’ve all come to enjoy in order to make this happen. After all, it’s got to be green, it’s got to be environmentally friendly, it’s got to check enough boxes so that consumers feel better about wanting it so badly, but more importantly, “it has to taste fucking good.” This film, and the corporation it has presented to us, gets deep down into our collective psychology and proves one thing: that guilt, like pork, is marketable.
The popularity of Okja goes hand in hand with the rise of shockumentaries such as Earthlings, Forks Over Knives, and the brilliant What the Health, which is currently also available on Netflix. It’s a key indicator that these poignant films are forcing us not only to look closely at what we’re eating but also to ask why we’re eating it in the first place. The stark rise of Google searches for plant-based lifestyles since Okja was released back in June is a key indicator that we’re starting to ask questions, and proves that this film, quite simply, is important.
- Okja’s face design was modeled after a manatee.
- When the movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the audience began to boo when the Netflix title card was shown in the opening credits. They then followed up by showing the first ten minutes of the film in the wrong ratio causing more booing. The film was played again from the beginning with even louder boos when the Netflix’s title card was shown for the second time.
- This will be the second Netflix movie co-produced by Plan B Entertainment. The first movie is War Machine (2017).