Runtime: 2 hours
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Starring: Seo-Hyun Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Giancarlo Esposito, and Jake Gyllenhaal
On-screen depictions of animal cruelty in the food industry are nothing new. Documentaries like Earthlings (2005), Food, Inc. (2008), and more recently, What the Health (2017) have all illuminated the inherent economic, humanitarian, and health horrors of the modern food industry by employing journalistic tactics to reveal the facts of the trade. Joon-ho Bong’s Okja retells that now familiar narrative of corporate food culture courting animal cruelty for the sake of profit, but instead of adopting the documentary format of the other aforementioned films, it conveys its message through a classic Taken-esque story with a uniquely South Korean flare.
Okja tells the story of a massive, multi-national company headed by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) that seeks to end a world food crisis by breeding a new species of super-pig. Mirando’s company sends 12 of these super-pigs to different farmers all around the world and in 10 years time, a company representative goes to each of the 12 farms, records how each individual farmer raised their super-pig, and finally collects said super-pig. Jump to South Korea, at the end of the 10-year incubation period, where Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) roams the forests of her grandfather’s farm with her super-pig companion, Okja. When the company representative Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives at Mija’s farm, he’s amazed at the size of Okja and crowns Okja as the prize super-pig. Once Wilcox reclaims Okja from Mija’s farm, we follow Mija as she desperately tries to rescue Okja from the clutches of the nefarious corporation.
While watching Okja, I couldn’t help but think back to this year’s Get Out (2017) in how both movies use a familiar thematic premise as a vehicle to illuminate an underestimated, contemporary social crisis. Like with Get Out, Okja subverts a familiar subgenre (the kidnapper-pursuit subgenre to be specific) with provocative social commentary – this time on our food culture, which is all the more apparent with the deliberately over-the-top performances from Tilda Swinton and Giancarlo Esposito as the antagonistic businesspeople behind the evil food company. The film makes it very clear of who the bad guys are and who the good guys are with the exception of the anarchist anti-meat militant group lead by Paul Dano and The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun. The cartoony portrayal of heroes and villains juxtaposes with the brutal realism of the world the characters occupy, effectively conveying what the screenwriter set out to say: how and what we eat epitomizes the content of our character, but doesn’t mean we can’t change and learn to empathize.
Okja director Joon-ho Bong does an impressive job of maintaining his unique, Korean filmmaking style while directing A-list Hollywood actors, which is nothing new to him after his previous film Snowpiercer that starred Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton once more. And like Snowpiercer, Okja is another scathing criticism of modern capitalism, albeit with a more visceral allegory than the former film. Okja very much plays up the same sentimentality every movie with a beloved pet in peril does (Marley and Me, I Am Legend, Old Yeller, etc.) and because of this it’s all the more easy to relate to the anti-meat-consumption message, even more so than the countless food industry documentaries out there.
However, the real message isn’t just “eating meat is evil,” it’s the anti-oppressive/anti-domination message articulated by the family of political thought consisting of true feminists, anti-fascists, and vegans. Paul Dano’s animal activist group is reminiscent of today’s Antifa groups that consist of feminists, vegans, and anarchists. They wear black, they aren’t afraid to utilize restrained violence, and they elicit the same violent push back from the several pillars of Capitalism (i.e. police, exploitative corporations, and organized government). It’s no mistake that Okja takes place in both South Korea and the United States, two countries that have famously (or infamously) framed their respective national identities around extravagant consumerism. It’s capitalism that connects these two countries and the inherent lack of empathy in their socioeconomic frameworks that serve as the driving force of the film.
Okja is a thoughtful and entertaining political allegory that manages to convey its message without becoming preachy and serves as a model of how to successfully merge foreign and domestic filmmaking in one film.