Review: Okja (2017)

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This is a movie that can be taken in a couple of different ways. A lot of people have latched on to its message about industrial farming, using it as an argument for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle — a view that can be seen as represented in the movie by the Animal Liberation Front, and its most extreme member, Silver, who starves himself out of fear that he’s contributing to exploitation even in agricultural farming systems. But even this hints that it’s also a story about human exploitation, from the way Mija’s grandfather lies to her, to K’s mis-translation of her wishes, to the way Mirano uses her love for Okja as a marketing tool. I absolutely don’t want to take away from the messages about how we treat animals, and about the toxicity of vast agri-business (TOPICAL GUYS), but to me this remained a very human movie. Maybe because it uses an invented creature — that is a fairly adorable pig-hippo-dog mash-up — to tug the heartstrings, maybe because the victory at the end was necessarily limited, or maybe just because the characters were written so well. After all, even within the ALF there are arguments about when ‘the cause’ should come first and when Mija’s wishes should come first.

Okja is a far sweeter tale than Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, but it’s not so sweet that it shies away from the utterly gruesome. Somehow it balances a host of different elements and slightly disorienting casting choices into a coherent, heartfelt whole. Wrangling together Mija’s idyllic, protected upbringing in a remote part of South Korea with the bustle of Seoul, the divided but devoted ALF, and the calculating marketing machine behind an American agri-business is no mean feat in itself, with the movie managing to give each character a distinctive personality and just enough of a backstory or motivation to bring depth to the story. Bong makes good use yet again of Tilda Swinton, who’s enjoyable as ever, but after her scene-stealing in Snowpiercer here she has the rug taken out from under her by Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic, egotistical nature documentary presenter. He’s somehow even more horrifying than the two-faced business-people: they lie about how their ‘super pigs’ are made because they know it’s the only way to sell the meat, but Gyllenhaal’s character, who made his career on the back of his professed love of animals, now turns most cruelly on them in order to cling on to the shreds of his pride. He’s been more effectively absorbed into Mirano than the top brass, it seems. But I think for me the strangest thing was Paul Dano’s turn as Jay, the leader of the ALF. All the cultish charisma and intensity he brought to There Will Be Blood is still there, but it’s softened just enough; nevertheless, the tension between the credo ‘do not harm’ and between the urge to do violence to various humans is, well, never that far from bubbling to the surface. It’s a really effective piece of casting, anyway, because with Jake Gyllenhaal trying to skew the movie’s balance in favour of his scenes, to Seo Hyun-Ahn’s quiet, stubborn heroine, Dano keeps the ALF parts equally strong.

Ultimately, it proves impossible to reconcile Mija’s simple desire to return home and not to join the underlying and ongoing struggle against the corporate giant, however. Mija gets her companion back again — traumatised but still trusting of Mija — and one little addition, but the abattoir remains; Mirano endures under stricter management; and only the sting after the credits gives you any idea of the continuing work against industrial agriculture. In this interview (warning, spoilers for Snowpiercer if you haven’t seen it), Bong talks about the underlying problem when it comes to environmental damage and animal cruelty being capitalism. It’s far easier to read this movie as a lament about the exploitative nature of multi-national corporations than as a direct call for veganism: Okja lives ‘free range’ with Mija and helps her harvest persimmon and fish, also contributing to the fertility of the ecosystem. Mija and her grandfather live remotely and grow what they need to sustain them, including chickens. But Mirano’s local contact Mundo must be almost a family friend, a trustworthy face familiar with the local terrain, and a bridge between foreign corporate interests and the perceived naïvité of the local farmers. It’s a naïvité that K in the ALF also exploits, telling Mija she should really learn some English after he mis-translates her wishes to the rest of the group. The movie isn’t just interested in animal rights, but in human rights, and in the colonial inheritance of globalisation.

There’s even more going on at a minor level, including themes of family that I don’t think I’ve quite managed to wrap my head around yet. Tilda Swinton’s Lucy is haunted by the legacy of her sister and her father, who were recognised as cruel and untrustworthy, even though they were still successful business-people; consequently, she is the dangerous mask of ‘friendly’ capitalism, terribly sad that she has to lie to her customers, but resigned to the fact that it is necessary. Mija, on the other hand, lost her parents at a very young age and latched onto Okja as her family — as Jay recognises when he gives her the choice of whether to help them or not. But her grandfather does not recognise the importance of Okja; an older, more conservative generation, he supposes that Mija has more of an attachment to the parents she can’t even remember, and thinks that the loss of a pet is just a part of a coming-of-age story where she can now move on and start thinking about meeting boys. I don’t think Mija’s story is a coming-of-age story at all though: if anything, it’s a rejection of it when she finally hands over what would traditionally have been a wedding gift in order to get her beloved Okja back.

Perhaps in the end there are a few too many balls in the air. Although the movie is a coherent whole, I’m not sure how much it needed Lucy’s personal motivation for her brand of friendly capitalism; it felt like a loose thread that was there to give Tilda Swinton more to sink her teeth into. The public, whose hearts and minds are the ones both the corporation and the ALF need to win over, are oddly absent, but there is too much awareness of the bigger picture for everything to focus in satisfactorily on Mija’s return home. It’s a victory, and it’s a happy victory, but it seems very small by the end. Nevertheless, I think this is a movie that will absolutely benefit from multiple viewings, with more emerging on each one.

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