“Okja” Offers a Beautifully Crafted, Profound Lesson on Life and Love … Sandwiched Between a Ham-Handed Construct and Terrible (Adult) Performances

Okra (Bong Joon Ho, 2017)

What arbitrary carnivores we be, O humans! Some animals we venerate, some we eat; some we domesticate as companions, others we beat. From culture to culture, our attitudes towards certain species vary, with the customs of one place horrifying the denizens of another. Eat cow? Blasphemy! Eat horse? Repulsive! Eat dog? Unspeakable horror! Who gets to set universal parameters of decency? Which nation is the most righteous? One thing is for sure, which is that while we bicker, globally, about our role as stewards of the earth, the animals, themselves are but pawns in our games of chance. My little rescue beagle gets to have a great life going to doggie daycare and sleeping next to her favorite (I hope!) human, while hordes of pigs live in cramped quarters awaiting slaughter, with nary a spider’s web in sight to save them. It should be enough to give one at least some pause before eating any kind of mass-produced meat.

These issues and more form the backdrop of Bong Joon Ho’s latest film, a Netflix original production (and you can watch it on Netflix now) entitled Okja (which WordPress keeps trying to autocorrect as “okra” – if I miss any of those, I apologize). Bong (Snowpiercer) is a director of great cinematic vision, and a master of integrating digital and practical effects. Okja is the name of a genetically modified “super pig” – with opaque origins – who is sent to a farm in South Korea to be raised in nature, away from her corporate owners (over 20 of her siblings and cousins are sent to different parts of the planet), in order to grow up in as healthy an environment as possible. By the time we meet her, she is living the blissful life in the company of 14-year-old Mija, with whom she shares a close bond. Looking like a cross between an elephant, a rhino, a beagle and, yes, an actual pig, Okja is a CGI wonder, with beautiful, thoughtful eyes that bespeak a deep intelligence. It’s not her brain that people want, however, and she sadly has an upcoming date with death that seems hard to avoid.

We learn the idea behind Okja’s conception in the film’s prologue, in which Lucy Mirando, new CEO of a giant (and hated) multinational food conglomerate – named “Mirando” after her family (and a clear stand-in for Monsanto) – desperate for the next new thing, hatches the super-pig plan, hoping to develop a new “super food.” Since consumers shy away from GMOs, however, Lucy and her minions need to hide the breeding program under the guise of all-natural farms. Hence, Okja’s placement with Mija. What no one at Mirando pauses to consider is how this super-smart creature (and her caretaker) might feel about her destiny. And so we embark on an adventure – a mix of thrills, laughter and tears – that will involve an eco-terrorist group, forces of law and order, the media, and Mija and Okja. The ending holds some tragic surprises that remind us of the issues I raised in the opening: no matter how many animals might escape misery, there are far more who do not. How you feel about that – and about our treatment of animals, in general – will probably determine how you feel about the movie. Personally, I loved the message, and I loved Okja.

What I didn’t like so much were the human actors, nor much of the scripted plot. Beyond the delightful girl who plays Mija (An Seo Hyun, Monster), the adult performers all appear in the grip of some ham-induced mania (could it be the pig?). Jake Gyllenhaal (Demolition), as a television personality, is by far the worst, for some reason choosing to channel Richard Simmons in a nonsensical pantomime, but he is hardly the only actor determined to over-chew the scenery. Tilda Swinton (A Bigger Splash), as not one, but two Mirando sisters, fares no better (her prosthetic teeth there to help the chewing, no doubt). Even Paul Dano (Love & Mercy), usually so reliable, is trapped inside caricature. Perhaps the only one, beyond Okja and Mija, I could stand to watch was Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring on AMC’s Breaking Bad), who’s relative stillness was a welcome relief, but even he was prone to the occasional overreach. As for the story, itself, it careens too wildly between hilarity and genuine tragedy to entirely gel, and often forces characters to behave as per the screenplay’s requirements, rather than as they might were they genuine people.

So, it’s a flawed film. But watching Mija and Okja frolic is well worth sitting through the stuff that grates. Their love – familiar to anyone who has shared moments of joy with a non-human friend – brightens the dark spots, lending a grace and profundity to the rest of the mess. And if the movie makes you consider, for even one moment, where your food comes from and what you might be prepared to do to guarantee at least some semblance of dignity and/or quality of life to that which nourishes us, then it will be a success, no matter its clumsy machinations. See it for Okja, then, and marvel at her penetrating, brilliant eyes.

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