Okja, like much of director Bong Joon-Ho’s body of work, is a special film for a lot of reasons. It successfully blends a fairy-tale aesthetic into what is essentially a real-world film with real-world characters and real-world consequences. It manages to pull off genuine comedic moments with English-speaking characters despite being helmed and mostly written by a South Korean (comedies directed by people who speak a different language than the one spoken onscreen have a long and unfortunate history of failure).
But I’m here to talk about one particular trait of this film that makes it stand high above its peers in my view: its full-throated commitment to taking on the meat industry and issues of animal welfare.
Okja is the story of a girl, Mija, who raises an unusually large “super pig” (the eponymous “Okja”) on her grandfather’s farm in South Korea and forms a close bond with the animal over the course of 10 years. At the end of that period, the pig’s owner — the pork conglomerate “Mirando Corporation” — comes calling, but finds Mija unwilling to send her friend to slaughter.
Plenty of films have featured themes involving environmental activism or animal rights over the years, but if those themes aren’t simply plot dressing, then they are usually watered down to preserve marketability, making them feel almost apologetic in their half-hearted activism. Take 2013’s The East, for instance, which starred Elliot Page and Alexander Skarsgård as vigilantes working to expose the ecological crimes perpetrated by a large corporation. The film is fine, but like so many other films, it portrays environmental activists as just as morally bankrupt as the corporation they are trying to bring down.
That’s par for the course in our era of antiheroes, in which a film isn’t considered realistic unless it’s slathered in so many shades of gray that you can’t tell the heroes from the villains from the victims, but anything gets old if every film is doing it.
That’s why, when a group of environmental activists are introduced in Okja, led by the charismatic Jay (Paul Dano) and working to save Okja from the clutches of the amoral Mirando Corporation, I began to get a little nervous. Jay seems to fit the template. He’s a smooth-talker and projects warmth and magnanimity to an almost exaggerated degree; much like Skarsgård’s character in The East, who turns out to be a megalomaniac willing to kill to achieve his aims.
This impression was strengthened after a scene in which Jay savagely beats a member of his group for failing to properly translate between him and Mija, who doesn’t speak a word of English at the beginning of the film. Upon further reflection, however, I realized this scene exists solely as a moment of cathartic fantasy for Joon-Ho, who had previously been pressured by Harvey Weinstein to cut 20 minutes out of 2013’s Snowpiercer and clearly had a bone to pick with inaccurate translations. The scene is never followed up on thematically and truly seems to exist apart from the film’s narrative. Odd, perhaps, but easily forgivable.
Indeed, there is no further wanton violence from Jay or anyone else in his group (the Animal Liberation Front, a real-life movement that has no formal leadership or structure). Aside from a genuinely funny moment when one of the activists refuses to eat anything because “all food production is exploitative,” there is no bowing to a consumer-friendly middle ground, no eleventh-hour reveal that “both sides” are to blame. From beginning to end, the corporation attempting to exploit and kill Okja is portrayed as cynical and deceptive, fronted by gleeful so-called “environmentalists” but working constantly toward only one interest: profit. And from beginning to end, Jay’s Animal Liberation Front is there for Mija and Okja.
Late in the film, the activists are caught by police in a desperate attempt to free Okja, and they are mercilessly beaten in a brutal but poignant scene that removes any doubts about the group’s purity of purpose. The scene also recalls Joon-Ho’s attention to activism in his earlier films, particularly in The Host and Memories of Murder (the former had a scene in which a character mused almost mournfully about how no one uses Molotov cocktails in protests anymore). One gets the sense that Joon-Ho holds deep respect for activists, particularly those who are willing to get their hands dirty. For this director, activism isn’t lining up in neat rows and obeying all traffic laws while carrying strongly-worded signs; it’s standing face to face with authority and refusing to back down.
In this film, that “authority” is the Mirando Corporation, which convincingly — and often hilariously — embodies the modern marketing tactic of “corporate activism” or “corporate social responsibility,” wherein a company engages in activism on a particular social issue to improve public perceptions of their business practices. For the Mirando Corporation, that means masquerading as an environmentalist, “earth conscious” company while conducting horrific genetic experiments on pigs away from the public eye. And in a true masterstroke that could only be the product of American Capitalism, it’s those very experiments that are repackaged and spun to the public as a revolutionary cure for world hunger.
Tilda Swinton turns in a deliciously goofy performance as a pair of sibling CEOs heading the Mirando Coporation, but that goofiness exists only to bring the amoral conniving of the corporation to the surface rather than burying it under softball satire as so many other films would have done. Mirando could have easily been a much more cartoonishly evil company, but the attention paid to the calculated hypocrisy of its leadership and marketing reflects the same commitment to thematic authenticity that we see in the unrepentant “goodness” of the Animal Liberation Front. Joon-Ho clearly did not want to make a film that watered down its message by turning its villains into caricatures, any more than he wanted to make a film that traded its moral compass for mass appeal.
Indeed, that authenticity made the leap from the screen into the life of the director himself. Making the film prompted Joon-Ho, once a lover of South Korea’s street barbeque culture, to become a temporary vegan and — as far as I can tell — a permanent pescatarian. That’s a kind of sincerity rarely seen in the film industry, and it shows. This is a film made by someone who cares, and regardless of your opinion about the meat industry, it’s worth seeing for that reason alone. Take it from me: you just might shed a tear.