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Okja reveals a disturbing picture of the food industry via its weird execution

Bong’s direction commands the bizarre plot and interweaves thematic expressions of ethics and interspecies candor into a riveting sci-fi drama.

Okja, a Netflix original, was booed at Cannes by cinema purists when the logo of the streaming giant showed up. This weird sci-fi flick, directed by Joon-ho Bong (Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer), discusses the politics of meat-eating using high-minded conceits. I can’t say if Okja is anti-meat, but Bong and co-writer Jon Ronson (a British author famous for his dark humor) are proudly against animal abuse and the meat industry. Okja succeeds at exposing the farcical pretense of soft-handed capitalist industries, and at its heart, there lies a pivotal, touching friendship.

The first two scenes, like their respective characters, are pitted against each other. First, we must endure Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, featuring a blonde bob and braces) and her edgy green-sheen speech in front of the press. At the agrochemical corporation Mirando, hereditary crimes take a turn with Lucy and her “Unleash Your Calling” motto as she takes over the company from her disgraced father and twin sister. She wholeheartedly believes in what she’s doing even when it’s for the profit and her revenge on them. The second scene leaps to ten years later in mountainous Korea, as Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) spends a day with her pet Okja, one of the 26 pigs from Mirando’s labs. What fascinates me here is that even with her ostensible appeal to the public, Mirando can’t reach her audience as effectively as how Mija communicates with Okja. Likewise, Okja understands her tender gestures despite their cognitive discrepancy.

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VFX supervisor Erik-Jan de Boer and creature-designer Hee-chul Jang join hands to create Okja and her unlucky siblings in many shapes and health conditions. Our titular beast is special. Robust and benign, she has immensely adaptive behaviors, an appetite for persimmons, thick hippopotamus skin, a scarred nose, and a chubby body that facilitates physical humor during chases. Her appearance is an amalgam of a dog and a pig, blurring the line between pets and so-called food sources.

From shoat to mutant super pig, Okja has been staying with Mija for ten years in the nurturing pleasantness of a pastoral life before Mirando’s inexorable “harvest” for their Super Pig competition. Their representative is Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose squeaking and whining eventually upset a confounded Lucy Mirando. Buoyant and caustic, this zoologist is past his heyday as a famed and beloved TV host, which might result from his 10 years at Mirando. He clings on to that silly TV personality while turning into a pathetic embodiment of an underdog, paid for loyalty then dumped when out of tricks. He brings Okja back to America, which prompts the disheartening Mija to enter an international mayhem.

Conflicts ensue when the third party interferes with Okja’s well-being by a “pignapping attempt.” Played by Paul Dano, Steve Yeun, Devon Bostick, Daniel Henshall, and Lily Collins, these rebels are the Animal Liberation Front—advocates of animal rights in their 40 years operating under their credo. The well-mannered group intervenes for a concise discussion with Mija about how they can use Okja to expose the corporation’s abuse. Moral satire is subtle with this anti-establishment movement, shown in their images of masked members in balaclavas and the ascetic freedom fighter Silver (Bostick) refuses to leave much of his “footprint” on our ecosystem. Before using animals to outplay their ideological opponents, they ask for Mija’s consent and cheer in relief when K “translates” her words as an agreement. As the only Korean member, Yeun delivers a translation joke designed to exaggerate the multicultural miscommunication in a global era.

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In practice, ALF’s sturdy cause clashes with their stretchable creed, leading to questionable decisions. The dramatic thrust from them is nonetheless important, particularly to sharpen the unbiased criticism toward zealotry from their leader, Jay (Dano at his most sharp and threatening).

From the moment Mija runs downhill, the movie never lets up. As the teenage Mija has the stamina of a semi-professional athlete, Okja shows the benefit of living in mountainous areas. Her foot chase after a truck proves we all should reassess our lifestyles. Assisted by creative camerawork and energetic edits, Bong directs a gripping sequence in which Okja charges her heavy body through locations in Seoul that casually scream consumerism. One forte I always love about Bong is his handling of comedy in such serious matters (aquatic monster or murder cases). Ja-eil Jung’s score adds a vibe of comical, laid-back scrutiny to the intense showdowns while Darius Khondji (Se7en) puts a modern touch on his cinematography style, assuring that his shadows remain active and sophisticated.

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Wrongs done to Mija and Okja can hurt Mirando, and the multifaceted Swinton on the verge of pitiful tears is spilling irony. Lucy Mirando is accompanied by her assistant Jennifer (Shirley Henderson and her Moaning Myrtle voice), one of the few people using “rad” in real life, and a stern senior advisor, Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito, Better Call Saul). Obsessed with PR issues, Lucy is the epitome of the next-gen corporate powers with a softer approach. She makes use of humanistic ideals and a little white lie about the origin of Okja’s kind. Contrasting their promotion for the new “organic” product, their pigs are genetic-mutated inventions from the test tubes. By turning Mija into their PR pawn, Lucy clumsily deals with the fiasco at hand.

Kudos to Ahn’s disdainful expression among banners and camera flashes when Mija is forced into this media trickery, though it speaks more about her earnest purpose and innocent worldview. Mija takes a more active role in the first half, and her participation in the second is diluted by the clashes of all parties, especially Bong’s focus on fleshing out Lucy and her comeuppance.

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While the grand finale looks like a rescue mission in swashbuckler films, its focus is the intimacy between Okja and Mija amid coldly epitomized industrialists. The remaining characters extend their effort into a cruelly realistic portrayal of animal abuse, juxtaposed with disturbing images of food manufacturing. Seeing herds of deformed super pigs being prodded and surrounded by electric wires, Okja with such an intelligence must have felt something for her kind. Those morally resonant scenes convey a strong message but are never preachy or dull.

Okja expresses a cynical view on the effectiveness of old-school business management. The bottom line is about lucrative deals, or essentially the money following them. The steely sound of atrocity still echoes behind Mija when she leaves, since the pigs are nothing but exploitable merchandise for the wheel of business. Bong’s direction commands the bizarre plot with self-assured strides, interweaving thematic expressions of ethics and interspecies candor into a riveting sci-fi drama.