clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Okja’ Is a Meaty Anti-Capitalist Fable

Bong Joon-ho’s Netflix epic is a slightly manipulative, but thoroughly fleshed-out tale about the future of food

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

Okja, the new Netflix original movie directed by Bong Joon-ho, is a tale of corporate spin. As the movie opens, the fictional Mirando Corporation, headed by the jumpy, eccentric Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), is doing a bit of rebranding. Mirando is one of the most hated agro-chemical companies in the world, and to make things tougher, the company’s got a new, potentially unpopular product — a genetically modified organism — to market. Since mutants are apparently an unappetizing dinner option, Lucy and her team have decided to go the cutesy, enviro-friendly route, refashioning their market-savvy new Frankenstein of a product, the "super-pig," into a global opportunity. The company yarn goes like this: 26 farmers are given 26 super-pigs to raise over the course of 10 years. It’s ostensibly a corporate-sponsored competition: a Best in Show for GMOs. What the Mirando Corporation anticipates, and rightly so, is that the public will completely fall for it. The pigs flourish; there’s little outcry. What they don’t seem to expect, however, is that a super-pig — with its big brown eyes and playful demeanor — might become someone’s pet.

Davids and Goliaths often square off in the world of Bong, whose movies are whimsical, cynical fantasies about the modern world. In Okja, Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun), a preteen living in the Korean countryside with her farmer grandfather, raises the super-pig Okja for a decade under the impression that her grandpa has been gradually paying Mirando off and that Okja would eventually be hers. But when the face of the Mirando Corporation, the deadbeat TV animal expert Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), shows up and takes Okja away, Mija is launched into a world of would-be activist-terrorists, spin doctors, factory workers, and many others, all of them constituting either the rungs of a global conglomerate with too much power or the grassroot forces trying to stop it. As painted by Bong, it’s a world full of eccentrics, driven to be so, perhaps, by their relationships to power.

There’s no one lower on the ladder, however, than Okja herself. The super-pigs have it tough, starting with the goofy name "super-pig." "Pig" feels like a misnomer, actually. In truth, as designed by Bong and his collaborators, the full-grown super-pigs are something closer to manatee-hippo-puppies. But they’re pigs, all right, and despite their unlikely gigantism and big, floppy ears, they nevertheless come with all the edible pig parts: loin, leg, shoulder, cheek, belly, chop, and whatever stuff hot dogs are made of — no, don’t tell me. They taste incredible, by the way. Bong, who’s always had a bit of a devilish streak, makes sure we see people eating them up well after we’ve already gotten to know one. Early on, we see Okja cuddling Mija, frolicking through the forest, and pooping cutesily into a local river — and after she’s captured and her flesh gets sampled for testing, we watch a satisfied row of taste testers lap up tiny bits of Okja meat.

It’s a little manipulative. Okja, the animal, is a garishly anthropomorphized sympathy machine, and I’m not sure that’s entirely tongue-in-cheek. Bong’s style can be intriguingly aggressive in that way, teetering slightly on the edge of outright sap while also landing a series of hooks on the jaw of corporate capitalism. The world of his movies is both complex and not. The good guys and the bad guys are easy to map out, but as individuals, his characters are strange and unpredictable, full of odd hang-ups that amusingly overdetermine who they are and what they do. Accordingly, the Mirando Corporation, as illustrated by Bong’s writing and direction, is a place where backstabbing power-grabs seem to flourish. Lucy Mirando, for example, fears being undermined by her batshit twin sister Nancy (also played by Swinton), who previously ran Mirando, and who’s completely disinterested in dolling up pig slaughter. "It’s not our fault that the consumers are so paranoid about GM foods," Lucy says, trying to explain her approach. "If it’s cheap," says Nancy dismissively, "they’ll eat it."

Per usual for Bong, no character is too small to feel like an individual: side characters get their moments, too. Their idiosyncrasies — an activist resistance (led by Paul Dano) that announces itself with rose petals rather than guns, for example — is one of the main fascinations of Bong’s style. He makes films about miniature collectives of memorable people who all constitute their place in a fuller world. None more so, in this case, than our heroine Mija, who is a force unto herself, practically a human wrecking ball but, like, smaller. Some of the highlights of Okja are watching her stand up to cops, CEOs, activists, and her grandfather, traveling worldwide to save her loving pet from becoming 500 pounds of bacon. This is a bit more fun than watching Chris Evans, in Bong’s Snowpiercer, try to stand up to similarly monolithic powers. That film was Bong’s crossover movie; casting a big actor like Evans was essential to it getting made. But the part never quite worked — you could never reasonably doubt that the guy who plays Captain America would ultimately succeed in some way, even as Bong’s sense of the fantastic, his eye for eerie contemporary gothicism, made it seem like the movie would be unpredictable. It wasn’t.

The ending of Okja, too, is a little bit of a letdown if you’re following the movie to what feels like its necessary conclusion. Bong sets us up for a nightmare, flirts with it, but then ultimately resists it, as if kowtowing to market testing that, in theory, given this platform, doesn’t exist. There’s a darkness to Bong’s vision that sometimes seems like it’s being reined in — even here, and even as the movie drips with clever cynicism. The movie is enjoyable, but part of me wishes it had really gone there — I mean, why not? Okja didn’t have to withstand the vindictive malingering of Harvey Weinstein, as Snowpiercer did. You watch with some confidence that the movie is Bong’s. That doesn’t promise a richer vision, but maybe it shouldn’t have to.