I’m far from a vegetarian or a pet/animal lover, but I get the reasons why people would be both. And no matter how much I enjoy eating red meat, even I would have to draw the line when confronted with a “Meet your meat” type scenario. What purpose is drawn from such a stunt? Do you know what’s a good pig/cow/chicken from a bad one? Do you even get to choose or are you merely gazing upon the one selected for you? It’s one thing to eat another living creature and another to relish its demise. This is why slaughterhouses number their animals rather than name them. It’s why farmers prepare their children by explaining how every furry friend save the dog is literally alive to be killed.
The alternative is cruel, especially when the child in question grows up with the animal as a pet—a friend. But this is what Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) facilitates to build a rapport with the public. She sends twenty-six of her company’s carefully bred super-pigs to twenty-six internationally based farmers for a competition meant to invest potential customers. She’s whetting their appetites for a presently scarce food source within this universe of Bong Joon-ho‘s Okja, targeting their pleasure centers to ensure this soon-to-be savory treat blankets every market in the ten-year gestation period she’s designated. Unfortunately, while they watch with baited breath as these cute creatures evolve (flesh growing tender enough to make mouths water), the caretakers become attached. Young Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) falls in love.
So when TV personality Johnny Wilcox (an unhinged Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives in Korea to name Mija’s best friend Okja the winner (the biggest, healthiest, and therefore most profitable super-pig), the fourteen year old thinks the occasion should be marked with excitement. Her grandfather (Hee-Bong Byun) told her he paid money to keep the beast, this visit merely a formality in her naïve mind. But of course it was a lie. He was subduing her anger, telling her what she needed to hear because he always knew an end to Okja’s stay was coming whether she won the contest or not. There’s nothing like betrayal to light a fire in a child, the complete lack of respect stoking it until an inferno rages. She’s going to get her back.
Bong’s film becomes an adventure thriller from here as Mija literally runs down the truck transporting Okja to Seoul before her cross-pacific trip to New York City. This young girl is parkouring onto moving vehicles, hanging on for dear life at high speeds, and running through a mall with her mammoth friend in tow upon release. She’s recruited by the Animal Liberation Front (led by Paul Dano‘s Jay, Steven Yeun‘s K, and Lily Collins‘ Red), used as a tool by Mirando’s bottom-line business goons (led by Giancarlo Esposito‘s Frank and Shirley Henderson‘s Jennifer), and ultimately embroiled in a massive conspiracy dealing with the ethical ramifications of genetically altered animals as food source. And we’re made to acknowledge how the world at-large around her doesn’t care. They want meat.
No one could call Okja subtle as a result. Bong’s parallels to the cattle industry et al. is overt with anonymous extras chowing down on super-pig jerky and C-list celebrities like Wilcox lamenting how they are animal lovers “forced” to discard principles in order for profit. Mirando may seem peppy and endearingly saccharine outwardly, but it all being an elaborate ruse is soon revealed—a marketing ploy adopted after attending a fringe university. Jay and the rest seem altruistic, but every activist group is inevitably shown to harbor elitist feelings of superiority that ultimately guarantee some of those they hope to save will be sacrificed for the greater good. The only character onscreen with genuine love in her heart is Mija. She just wants Okja to come home.
Having these three distinct threads (Mija, Mirando, and the ALF) means a lot happens a lot can seem inconsequential. Mirando is very obviously the villain, a role that doesn’t necessarily need as much elaboration as it receives with family scandal, a black sheep sister, and fashion lines. Jay and company are very clearly the antiheroes, a label they earn in their first scene. The stuff surrounding both builds them up to be two-dimensional in a way that lends some great humor just as it also threatens to lose its hold on the main plot. I’m not going to say I didn’t laugh or enjoy Swinton’s anxieties or Dano’s hardline grasp on the ALF mission, just that these characterizations seem to be more distraction than complement to the rest.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t needed to combat the otherwise dark gaze behind the curtain at the senseless slaughter of cute living beings. It doesn’t mean Gyllenhaal’s one-note eccentricity won’t eventually find room to welcome sympathy even if it never truly earns receiving it. Oftentimes we must laugh so that we don’t cry, so don’t take that TV-MA rating for granted just because Okja is a Netflix film—it’s an R-equivalent that puts its super-pig through the wringer of scientific experimentation, mating (rape), and the bolt. Bong is making sure we understand his message by doubling down on the horror of greed and the pain of sacrifice whenever possible. We live in a world where we simultaneously market animals as beautiful and fuel. We’re constantly ruled by contradiction.
What’s truly great about the film is Bong’s disinterest in the notion of “happily ever after” as inevitability. He consistently presents his characters with choices that they must make in accordance with who they are. You’re not going to melt Mirando’s heart with love. You’re not going to save one super-pig amongst hundreds without meeting an opposing force exponentially bigger than your own (think the ratio of humans that eat meat compared to those that don’t). Compromises will be made, but this heightened capitalist society on the brink of extinction isn’t one for charity. You must give to receive. It could be money, blood, or your soul—all three exchanged here, one way or another. The question asked is therefore whether one small victory is worth infinite defeats.
courtesy of Netflix