art and culture Bong Joon-ho

OKJA and Optimism for Humanity

Monday, July 03, 2017 Rob Samuelson

Bong Joon Ho is a long-term optimist. He sees the world as a forgiving place as long as people put in the effort to make better decisions about themselves and the environment around them. The South Korean filmmaker’s work is defined by animals’ presence or absence -- Snowpiercer’s dystopic train is so bleak because of the dead, nature-free world it rumbles through. His cinematic worlds are often dark places where pain and evil roam free, but the people at the core of his stories point his viewers in the right direction about how to live.

Photo credit: OKJA/Facebook

His latest movie, Okja, available now on Netflix, is perhaps his clearest statement yet on animals, nature, humanity, and ultimately, the forgiveness that awaits us if we wise up and stop treating this planet like it’s a dumpster. In an alternate present in which genetically modified “superpigs” have been bred for a decade by a multinational conglomerate, a girl from a rural area of South Korea, Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), treats her superpig like a member of the family. Okja, the pig, is a galumphing, protective, and kind doofus who is like a hyper-intelligent labrador in the body of a hippo. She does not belong to Mija or her grandfather. The company tasked them a decade earlier with raising Okja to maturity so that she could be sliced into a thousand pieces to feed the meat-loving masses of the Western world. Mija, who has grown up with Okja since she was a toddler, has been fed a steady stream of lies about her beloved friend. Her grandfather says he can afford to pay off the company to keep her and the company says they only want to take Okja to New York to compete in a pageant of the finest superpigs the world has ever known. Neither is true. This trip is about slaughtering animals and nothing more.

Mija processes this increasingly distressing information about as maturely as anyone could expect. The 13-year-old Ahn’s cheeks have the roundness (and thus the innocence) of youth, but her eyes harden and darken over the course of Okja, revealing a newfound steeliness that prepares her to do the right thing in a system designed to make her conform to consumerism. She does not break under the pressure exerted on her by various parties, including a group of animal rights activists led by Jay (Paul Dano) and the superpig corporation led by a sniveling CEO played by Tilda Swinton and a PR hack (Jake Gyllenhaal, playing an outlandish spoof of nature TV hosts like Jack Hanna). Mija correctly sees these people for what they are: folks with agendas. She makes concessions when she must, but ultimately she chooses to work with the flawed people who don’t want to see her friend slaughtered so already tubby people can have another option the next time they barbecue.

The tug of war between the corporation and the animal rights people is a microcosm of Bong’s worldview. He switches tones masterfully between each group. Swinton and Gyllenhaal one-up each other in a movie-long game of “who can be the most like a cartoon,” with each finding new ways to incorporate screechy voices and bizarre tics that indicate mental illness and corporate greed. Dano’s character’s crew is often frighteningly earnest in their beliefs. One member passes out from hunger pains because he says that all food production causes environmental harm and another is beaten to a pulp by a comrade for not adhering to the group’s 40-year-old ethos -- which, coincidentally, also have a provision about remaining nonviolent, but that is ignored conveniently when it comes time to punish a pariah.

There is every reason to look at these people and despair, for they do not present a lot of noticeable hope for humanity. There are different reasons to feel bad about the different groups. Swinton and Gyllenhaal are greed run rampant. They care about nothing but themselves. The animal rights people, with their contradictions and constant failure to uphold their ideals, are even more disheartening, especially for a good-hearted person like Mija who wants to grow up to be kind to the world. This could be a lesson to viewers to not trust people because they will always ruin things with their hypocrisy.

But that’s not what is on Bong’s mind, because that would be pessimistic. It would mean giving up on our species (and every other species on the planet).

What Bong says with Okja is that these contradictions matter, and they occasionally break spirits, but they can also be temporary bumps in the road. People can and do pick themselves up after moments of weakness. They challenge their assumptions and change. They can push themselves and others to get somewhere more productive for everyone involved. It would be foolish and wrong to forget about the contradictions that exist inside all of us, because those contradictions can and will crop up again in the future -- that’s a guarantee. That is because the world is full of heinousness. It is often so enabled by our economic and political systems that it becomes cartoonishly deranged, but there are people who believe we can do better. If we continue to care about protecting and building up things that are larger than ourselves, we might be okay.

And if we get it right, we might even be rewarded with a giant hippo pig who loves us.

Director: Bong Joon Ho
Writers: Bong Joon Ho, Jon Ronson
Starring: Seo-Hyun Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Henderson
Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Available now on Netflix

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