‘Okja’ is a Concert of Cultures with a Cogent Perspective on Food Politics

Rating: TV-MA
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.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the eccentric Johnny Wilcox

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.


Third Time’s the Charm with Marvel’s Iconic Web Swinger

Spider-Man: Homecoming
Rating: PG-13
: 2 hours 13 minutes
Director: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey. Jr, and Marisa Tomei

Since the release 2007’s Spider-Man 3, the iconic Spider-Man character’s cinematic reputation has been dubious to say the least. Critics and fans alike have been waiting for a respectable on-screen depiction of the character that even closely resembles the brilliance of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. While 2012’s competent reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, did it for some, it’s undeniable that the same year’s game-changing superhero mash-up The Avengers effectively nullified its spectacle. Since then, fans of the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler have begged and pleaded for the character to escape the clutches of film-rights-holders Sony Pictures and join his comic-book brethren in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After an underwhelming Amazing Spider-Man sequel and a Sony-email dump later, fans finally get their wish with Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Tom Holland, the third actor to portray the web-head in a live-action feature film, first graced screen in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, in a very memorable, but minor role as Tony Stark/Iron Man’s secret ace against team Cap. Starting almost immediately after his Civil War exit, Homecoming opens with a “film by Peter Parker” title card as we watch Peter Parker vlog his Civil War excursion with Happy (Jon Favreau), Tony Stark’s driver and bodyguard, to fight with Iron Man and company against Captain America. We again witness the famous airport fight from Peter’s perspective before transitioning to Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) dropping Peter back off to his aunt’s apartment. Peter gushes over his anticipated admission to the Avengers, but Tony withholds his membership until he feels Peter’s ready. The rest of film sprouts from Peter’s efforts to prove himself an Avenger by taking down the high-tech arms dealer, Vulture.

Homecoming director Jon Watts has a proven knack for directing stories of youthful curiosity and conquest in conflict with disillusioned adulthood. Peter Parker/Spider-Man is an ambitious kid who wants to do his part in keeping the world safe even if it means disregarding the advice of his parental figures, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Tony Stark. Like most young people, Peter sees himself ready to take on the world, and it’s dangers. In Homecoming, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), AKA Vulture is that danger.

Michael Keaton stars as Adrian Toomes AKA Vulture

Not unlike Kevin Bacon’s villainous turn as the corrupt, homicidal police officer in director Watts’ previous film Cop Car, Michael Keaton puts out a compelling and menacing albeit sympathetic performance as Toomes/Vulture, the owner of a salvage company who turns to illegal arms-dealing after a voided business contract costs him and his workers their livelihood. Keaton’s organic charm makes his more sinister scenes all the more effective and it’s here where Homecoming distinguishes itself from other of the episodic MCU films. Keaton’s Vulture epitomizes today’s blue-collar outrage in the face of inconsiderate bureaucracies and exploitation by the 1 percent (i.e. Tony Stark being responsible for driving Toomes out of business). Peter Parker too experiences the woes of underlying hierarchical structures as both Peter and Spider-Man. As a teenage student, Peter and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) exist within the modern high school hierarchies of popularity, pretty girls, and AP classes. As Spider-Man, Peter struggles to prove himself a worthy addition to the Avengers while being held back by the stigma of his pubescence.

The politics of Homecoming is surprisingly thoughtful without becoming preachy. Marvel productions like the Luke Cage Netflix series and presumably next year’s Black Panther manage to deal with race without polarizing their viewing base. Likewise, Homecoming’s racial framework, while obviously rooted in colorblindness, feels both modern and genuine. For the first time in a live-action Spider-Man movie, the film’s main love interest, Liz (Laura Harrier) is a non-stereotypical black girl who’s both beautiful and intelligent – she’s even the captain of the high school decathlon team. Likewise, Zendaya’s character Michelle “MJ” Jones feels true to today’s female youth in the way she conveys her awkward quirks, her withdrawn pretentiousness, and her nonchalant wit. As you may have noticed, Michelle’s initials allude to the classic Spider-Man love interest, Mary Jane Watson, formally portrayed by Kristen Dunst in the Sam Raimi films. While the filmmakers have come out on occasion to dispel the presumption that Michelle is that classic Mary Jane character, the film sets up for Michelle to replace Mary Jane altogether in this interpretation of the Spider-Man story (so cries of “black-washing” should rightfully subside). Lastly, Donald Glover’s brief role as Aaron Davis (the uncle of the Miles Morales, the Afro-Hispanic Spider-Man who takes up the helm after the death of Peter Parker in the Marvel Ultimate Comics that the MCU is based off of) is a cool addition to the ensemble that hints at the possibility of a Miles Morales appearance in future Spider-Man films.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man in his improvised suit

Homecoming’s trailer raised the understandable fear of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark dominating the final film. And like in Civil War, Tony Stark is utilized sparingly and effectively. Noting Iron Man’s popularity, it could have been very easy for the filmmakers to relegate a disproportionate amount of narrative weight on him. Luckily, Tony Stark’s scenes in Homecoming almost strictly serve the story, save for a brief scene at the end of the movie that feels very much out of an Iron Man movie. As Peter’s quasi-father figure, Stark rightfully praises, supports, and scolds Peter at certain points throughout the film and Robert Downey Jr. does a great job of forming that parental bond both with Peter and with us, the audience.

Like any movie, Homecoming is not without it’s flaws, though there aren’t many. While this third iteration of the character is the most balanced version of the Peter/Spider-Man pair, the film falls just short of the greatness of Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Homecoming paces briskly through its 2 hour and 11 minute runtime, which ends up costing us ample time to fully digest the film and some of its deeper character moments like we did with Raimi’s films, making those character moments feel superficial in many ways. Despite that, there is one scene in particular in the final act of the film is arguably the most human Spider-Man moment put on film. Additionally, Zendaya’s character, while objectively well conceived, is a bit off-putting in the worst ways, perhaps attributed to character nuance or her acting. Her blatant pessimism often times comes off as pompous rather than as endearing. However, by the end of the film, Zendaya does reveal a deeper, less annoying characterization of Michelle that in part makes up for and justifies her personality in the rest of the film.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a welcome and refreshing standalone addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that showcases great performances from Tom Holland and Michael Keaton with a few nuggets of social commentary sprinkled beneath. Homecoming may not beat out the masterpiece that is Spider-Man 2, but it is most undoubtedly a unique and definitive Spider-Man film.