Monday, July 03, 2017

'Okja' Attempts to Convert Its Audience to Veganism - or, at Least, Make Them Condemn Factory Farming

There are two movies which director Bong Joon-ho is most known for:  The Host and SnowpiercerThe Host is one of my most favorite Korean films of all time.  And I would have considered Snowpiercer a science fiction masterpiece if it didn’t have an underwhelming ending (the premise and first two acts were brilliant though); it’s a good movie overall nonetheless.  But now, I think – I have to re-watch The Host to be sure though – Okja could be his magnum opus.

Okja is set in a world where a company known as Miranda Corporation has discovered and bred “super-pigs” – intelligent, empathetic, hippopotamus-like swine – in order to address world hunger.  Through this, new CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) hopes that the company’s controversial, cruel past under her father and twin sister’s leadership will be forgotten.  As part of the company’s PR campaign, it launches a contest in which 26 of the best piglets are set to locations around the world so that they can be raised by different local farmers, through different techniques respective to their cultures, and at the end of ten years, the “biggest, most beautiful and special one, the ultimate super-pig” is going to be crowned as winner by Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a TV personality known for his animal show.

The story centers on the friendship of Okja, the super-pig sent to South Korea, and Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the granddaughter of the farmer whom Okja is assigned to.  When Okja is picked by Dr. Wilcox as the winner, she’s immediately taken by the Miranda Corporation.  Mija then, without hesitation, sets out to rescue her and take her back to her mountain home before she can be transported to somewhere out of reach – or, worse, slaughtered.
At first, it seems to have your typical kid-and-her-pet narrative.   It starts out with an air of juvenile light-heartedness.  There’s drama, stakes, and sense of looming heartbreak being developed, for sure, but they’re within the parameters of a generally wholesome tone.  And whenever it gets serious, upsetting, or violent, it’s soon offset by Wes Anderson-y characters and goofy sequences.  Nonetheless, subtle hints of a much darker movie are always there.  The narrative gradually grows intense, and by the time it gets to its last act, the sense of innocence is completely shed off.

Like Boon Joon-ho’s past works in The Host and Snowpiercer, Okja is satirical but dark.  Thus, there are some humorously absurd moments where the obviously disturbing nuances made it awkward to laugh.  And this somewhat makes the whole thing more thought-provoking.   In addition, great direction keeps all the ever swinging elements and tonal shifts from getting all over the place.  The movie’s purposefulness is kept intact.

The ultimate theme of the film is probably pro-veganism – or, at least, anti-factory farming.  Now, there’s some false equivalency involved here to make it work.  But whether you applaud of the message or cynically scorn its manipulations, one thing’s for sure: the execution of the film’s pathos is very affecting.
Overall, I think Okja is a fresh, well-crafted movie.  It’s not entirely perfect and brilliant.  But it truly has masterful storytelling and impacful visuals, which combine to make an entertaining, thoughtful, emotional, and provocative movie about a girl and her animal friend.

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