Bong Joon Ho’s Okja, at a first glance, comes across as a film that purely explores the relationship between the genetically engineered pig and her caretaker and bosom buddy, Mija (played by Seo-Hyun Ahn). Viewers get to witness the strength of the bond between the two and what lengths Mija is willing to go to get her friend back. This primary focus on these two gave me a family film vibe.
However, a family film this is not.
As is the case with some of Bong Joon Ho’s work, Okja is a multi-layered tale that tackles capitalism, food industry practices, and – in some ways – our environment as a whole. The World is running out of food because our population won’t stop growing. Thus, the idea for genetically engineered super pigs arises and is implemented by the Mirando corporation in an elaborate presentation that is all pomp and flash. Nevermind the fact that this company previously was known for their distribution of Napalm and making money off of human suffering. No. Now they have switched to their attention to saving their public image and attempting to save mankind while turning a profit.
What holds the wildest of moments together is the cast and their willingness to embrace the satirical and, sometimes, absurd scenes that they are given. Tilda Swinton plays two characters who represent the opposite spectrums of the face of capitalism. Swinton’s Lucy is the overly positive and optimistic class representative-type who can’t do anything wrong until she does. She is the horribly insincere regarding her prized project and cares about the external. We see a representation of this with later on in the film after Okja is taken to the States. Lucy’s sister, however, is the ballsy, cold business woman that we’ve come to associate more commonly with capitalism. The one who’d sacrifice her entire family and her dog in order to ensure that she would make a sale.
Jake Gyllenhaal represents the sell out zoologist. Initially, he might have started off his career doing what he actually cared about until Mirando Corporation got their hands on him. In the film, we get to see past the celebrity and witness the hysterical psychotic mess that is bubbling beneath the surface. Then there is Paul Dano’s leader of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). He is caring of all of Earth’s creatures, but god forbid you break any of the sacred rules of the ALF. There is a nuanced performance from each member of the cast.
But I think the true star of this film is newcomer Seo-Hyun Ahn. Without her, this film would not have its spirit or its heart. She is a stubborn girl who’s only really known life in the country alongside her best friend. Although we get a brief glimpse into the relationship between her and Okja, her acting with the CGI creature solidifies the strength of this friendship in the audience’s eyes. She helps deliver the pure and loving feeling between the two so that, when Okja is collected by Mirando Corporation to represent the unveiling of the success of the project, her love and desperation to find her friend and take her back home feels real. Her desperation becomes ours and we are taken on this emotional journey with her.
Overall, Okja is a great film that will leave you thinking about not only the strength of friendship, but also force you to see how we as a capitalistic society view and treat animals, especially when it comes to their profitability. The movie is accessible to audiences in a way that hasn’t been done in mainstream media in awhile. There is enough sweetness and purity to make the pill easier to swallow but, like an onion, there are enough layers to peel back to leave audiences contemplating the topics Bong Joon Ho presents to us.