That’s because Okja is livestock. Along with her siblings, she’s been bred by the Mirando corporation as part of the solution to world hunger; more truthfully, she’s been bred to line the pockets of the Mirando corporation while lining the stomachs of consumers. In order to put a friendly face on this grisly business, Okja is raised by a picturesque mountaintop farmer in rural South Korea, and after a decade the suits come to claim her for a PR stunt in New York.
Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has other plans. She’s grown up alongside Okja, and she’ll be damned if her land-manatee is being taken away from her. She doesn’t have a particularly sophisticated plan of action, but she does have determination, and her rescue attempt happens to coincide with the intervention of earnest animal welfare activists led by a softly-spoken hipster (Paul Dano).
It’s hard to describe how genuinely unpredictable Okja is. You feel it could go anywhere, in part because of Bong Joon-ho’s zig-zagging tone-control makes watching his film a disconcerting experience. You might guess from the plot summary that Okja is kind of instructive fable for children, a pro-empathy narrative about a child-animal relationship like Pete’s Dragon, but the characters are swearing – and swearing badly – every other sentence. The disconnect between the harsh language/dark theme and the sunny visuals/cute protagonists is uncomfortable, but that’s entirely appropriate to what Okja is about.
The meat and dairy industries aren’t pretty, but they try their best. Cartoony logos tend to portray animals as chuckling and winking, actively happy about their fates; and even when consumers are half-aware that such fates involve violation, deprivation, and confinement (before an unceremonious execution), it’s easy to blank such knowledge out.
Okja makes the blanking harder. It’s a comedy first and foremost, with innocent fart gags sharing screen-time with sharp one-liners and broad satire, but it takes its storyline to the grimly logical conclusion that it needs to reach. If you head out for a hotdog after the ending, your carnivorousness is more resolute than ours.
It’s entirely characteristic of Bong that he shouldn’t see a contradiction between wild hilarity and moral seriousness. As the corporate villains, Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal give performances of such pantomime ludicrousness that, in their own appealing way, they almost undermine the horrifying importance of what Bong is trying to convey. But somehow it all comes together, and the unevenness of Okja ends up being part of its unconventional brilliance.
|What||Okja film review|
|Where||UK Netflix | MAP|
01 Jun 17 – 01 Oct 18, Times Vary