Review #2: Okja: A Beautiful Story of Ugly Capitalism


In May this year a new film by a Korean director caused controversy and plaudits at the Cannes film Festival. Firstly, there were jeers at the screening when the logo of the production company was shown, then there were protests because the film was shown in the wrong aspect ratio. Finally, after the film was finished, there was a four minute standing ovation.

The film at the center of all this was Okja from director Bong Joon-Ho and the logo that caused so much distain and fury – the internet streaming service Netflix.

The reason for the uproar is a simple question with a very complicated answer – if a film is made for consumption primarily on small screens can it really be called a film? In other words does it deserve the same respect as something made for the big screen? At what point does a film cease to be a film?

This is particularly important to the French, who see themselves as the bastions of cinema arts and especially at their premier film festival at Cannes. Because of uproar caused by Okja reassurances were quickly made that, at future festivals, only films which receive a cinema release will be eligible for competition entry. This could spell bad news for Netflix as there is a three year window between when a film is shown in the cinema and when it is allowed to be streamed.

This is all interesting and is something that would make a good article in the future, the important question here is whether Okja can rise above the controversy and live up to the promise of previous Bong Joon-Ho films?

The Host
The Host

The answer is, thankfully, a resounding yes.

I am a huge fan of Bong Joon-Ho having first discovered him with his fantastic monster movie, The Host. It was an odd film which had a brilliantly realised monster, an interesting approach to the story (focusing on the effects the monster has on an ordinary family rather than official efforts to capture or kill it) and the most unusual and intriguing sense of humour. After my first viewing I was stunned but felt unsure about the direction the humour took the film – I just didn't expect it. On subsequent viewings I have learned to love his approach and embrace this very singular wit.

Okja and Mija
Okja and Mija

The same can be said for his film Mother which begins and ends with the film's titular character (played by Hye-ja Kim) in a field dancing alone, and it continues in Okja. Okja starts with the creation of a 'super-pig' and is the brainchild of the CEO of the Mirando corporation Lucy Mirando played with wonderfully manic desperation by Tilda Swinton. Twenty six of these super-pigs are sent around the world to be raised by various indigenous farmers using traditional methods to see who raises the biggest and the best pig. In Korea a 14 year old girl has lived with one of these pigs in a small bucolic farm in the mountains for 10 years. The pig, named Okja, is Mija's best friend and she doesn't realise that he will one day be taken from her to be turned into meat. When that day comes Okja is taken and she realises that she had been duped, she heads into Seoul to find her friend. Along the way she encounters the politest Animal Rights campaigners you've ever come across, a washed up TV animal expert, scores of PR and corporation suits and their private army.

What Bong Joon-Ho has excelled in in the past is the portrayal of the family. He seems to revel in exploring the tensions and peculiarities of the family dynamic and actively enjoys exposing the sometimes selfish personalities therein. Okja is no different. Mija is cared for by her Grandfather who has known the secret all along and held it from her. He is a selfish man who sees more value in coin than flesh, yet at the same time you get the feeling that he does it because he loves Mija and really believes he is doing the right thing.

Mija is a more straight forward character whose resilience and determination rivals Hye-Ja Kim's Mother. Ahn Seo-hyun plays her with a focused determination and unflinching love that is impossible to resist. In fact, all the performances are excellent even when pushed to the limits. This is perhaps best exemplified by Jake Gyllenhaal who approaches his character Dr Danny Wilcox, the TV anthropologist, with a manic zeal and outrageousness which shows how confident the director and actor were in their chosen concept for the character. This is in contrast to the head of the Animal Liberation Front Jay, played with an almost hippy calm by Paul Dano.

Ultimately Okja is an allagory on the extremes of capitalism and how far a corporation will go to sell a product and hide the truth. An odd coincidence is that, as I write this I have my headphones on and I am listening to my collection of soundtracks on shuffle and at this moment Lisa Gerrard is playing. The song is Sacrifice from The Insider OST (Dir: Michael Mann) – a film with a very similar theme but with a very different approach.

If you are an avid meat eater with a complete disdain for the source of your hamburger you may find Okja a bit preachy – that is always a risk when you make a film with this subject matter, however, this is not really the case here. The ending reveals the horrors of the slaughterhouse, the ruthlessness of the corporate mind and the cost of the world's need, not just for food which is how the pigs are marketed, but for tasty snacks (which undermines the idea that the pigs are there to help feed the world).

At the same time, the film is not pro-vegetarian propaganda as they too are the butt of a few jokes throughout (for example, Silver who won't eat a tomato in case it has man-made toxins even though he is extremely weak from hunger).

Okja is a fun, frenzied ride starting in the beautiful mountains of Korea, to the urban sprawl of New York. Bong Joon-Ho has put together an eclectic mixture and pulls off a very entertaining film. Whilst I would have loved to have seen it on the big screen – for it seems to have been designed on a scale much larger than television – I applaud Netflix for taking the gamble with this unusual material and giving the director the money and control that a film like this needed. You can't help but wonder if, given the size of the budget and the peculiarity of the script, Okja could have been made by one of the main studios. Given the fact that Snowpiecer still has not had a release in the UK because of a difference of opinion between Bong Joon-Ho and Harvey Weinstein, I doubt it would and so, despite the controversy, I am thankful for Netflix for giving us this gem.

Okja Trailer