If you’re faint of heart, Okja is not the film for you.
I first heard of Okja while scrolling down the BBC website; there was an article about a new Netflix movie that was sparking controversy and I even clicked on it (there was this cute CGI piggy in the picture!), but then it turned out to be a video not an article, and I gave up. It wasn’t until a few days later when I was feeling sick, and had a horrible fever, and just needed something to cheer me up when Netflix recommended Okja to me and I actually watched it.
All I cared for was this super cute CGI piggy. I assumed it would be one of those feel-good movies, you know, a little girl and her adorable monster against the universe. Some gags, some heart-warming stories, but overall virtually no danger. Something to really lift my spirits and let me get through my illness.
If anything, Okja is a great lesson for me in READING MOVIE DESCRIPTIONS. Why don’t I ever read movie descriptions? I watch so few movies, surely I should pay at least a bit of attention to what I put on, no? Exactly.
But there is another side to this lesson – being that if I did actually know what Okja was about, I would probably never have put it on, too scared of how it can affect me and how upset I will be afterwards; but, at the end of the day, Okja turned out to be a movie I am extremely grateful that I didn’t miss.
SPOILER WARNING: This review does discuss the key thematic concerns of Okja, which can be a spoiler as to the direction this movie takes. The recap includes a short description of the first 10-15 minutes of the movie.
Let me start by recapping the story for you, so that you know what you’re getting yourself into. There is a big corporation (oh, don’t we all love big corporations?) that, through a stroke of luck, finds a new breed of pig, manages to get 10 offspring off it and sends them around the world so that local farmers using traditional methods can raise these super piggies to be bigger, stronger and… cuter, I think they are trying to convey, but we all should know cuter means tastier, don’t we?
One of these miraculous piggies travels to South Korea where it grows up alongside a little girl, Mija, and they become very good friends. Unfortunately, the time finally comes for the Super Pig contest – and Okja needs to leave for America. Her best friend, completely blind to what the real purpose of this competition was, runs to her rescue and that’s how her big journey to get Okja back begins.
I must admit, this was one of those movies I started watching, thinking that no matter what happens, the pig will be back. Somewhere around the 20 minutes mark, I started to realize that the chances of Okja surviving oscillates somewhere around 5%.
It’s up to you to find out whether miracles happen.
If this whole Super Pig concept sounds dodgy to you, as it did to me, and makes little sense in this sadly realistic setting, I’ll have you know that it is not exactly the most… accurate portrayal of what is really happening. And although at first I considered it a very fake opening to the story, throughout the movie I learnt to appreciate it as Mija’s understanding of what was happening, a version she has bought into, this sweet and innocent lie she has been fed.
Which brings me to something I really want to get across as early as possible: this is NOT a propaganda piece. Okja centers around a very controversial issue and, there is no denying it, takes a very strong stand on it. But at the same time, it is just a great movie that happens to be concerned with something up-to-date. It does not preach. It does not change hearts. It tries to deliver a story of something more universal, complex, tragic than the state of meat industry.
If you were on the fence about eating meat, this movie can indeed push you over the line. My boyfriend, all these weeks earlier, is still struggling to decide if he actually still eats meat (he hasn’t had any since). But he was already almost there. It has always been a difficult topic for us both, we have both struggled with it on one level or another. If you are an avid meat-eater, Okja will not turn you vegetarian. It won’t try to either.
There is a good deal of grayscale in this movie, which allows it to be subtle in its message while staying brutal at the same time. I am aware of how oxymoronic that sounds, but Okja is in some ways an oxymoron of a movie. Even though it does seem one-sided in its message, it refuses to good-and-evil its characters, to label them as the best or the worst, push them into a black and white world where no one is allowed to make a mistake. Even Mija, who, indeed, is very hard not to root for, struggle to be the real hero we would usually see in these sorts of productions. She’s sweet, innocent, competent – but not out there to save the world. Not at the cost of her best friend.
Keeping this balance and distance is very tough considering how current the issues Okja talks about are. Some time ago I mentioned one of my favourite things about classics is how they let us look at the problems we’re facing from a non-personal perspective. Everything is personal about Okja as it happens here and now, and it happens on a very realistic plane. And for a movie to touch on such a controversy and yet remain a movie, not a piece of blatant propaganda, without tricks such as animation (Zootopia, I’m looking at you) is a real challenge.
If anything, Okja proves we can still make movies about something – without compromising their quality. For reasons unknown (ekhm, money, says the cynic within me) most of the current productions either avoid important questions altogether, trivialize them or assume that talking of such things requires the Grandiose and Pompous, and become insanely dull. But here we finally have a good piece of cinematography which is entertaining, funny, well-written and acted, very approachable for a regular viewer, easy to understand even if emotionally draining to watch – and yet meaningful.
And that is what the entire team behind Okja deserve a big big big hug for.
Before we finally move to how, let us stay with why for a little longer. Because although Okja, as I stressed many times above, does talk about the food, especially meat, industry, there is a bigger… I wanted to say fish to fry here, but it somehow doesn’t seem appropriate right now.
There is another layer of meaning to Okja, and that is the problem of progress.
Some of you probably know I am… not that keen on the idea of never-ending progress; and that is probably why this resonates so well with me. But Okja is a movie about never-ending progress. The characters portrayed as ‘the bad side’ do not represent evil, or lack of morals – they stand for more, better, faster. Their drive is money and money alone. More profit is everything they seek.
They don’t wake up one day, corrupt to the bone. They are not out there to hurt little girls’ dreams. They are consumed by the need to keep growing.
The very idea of creating a Super Pig, something that would be low maintenance yet still deliver more and more profit is where the entire plot originates. It just happens to be the meat industry; which, even though it does not have any Super Pigs yet, does not operate very differently to the movie one in real life, don’t fool yourself. But it could be any big corporation, or any person for that matter. Okja could tell the story of someone selling buttons and wanting to sell more of them, and monopolize the button scene, and this message would sound as loud and clear.
What movies like Okja often fall for is the idea that people who do all these things their creators find unacceptable are evil monsters. But people who created Super Pigs do this for good – the good of their company and their pockets, obviously, but also to some extent for the good of the people who need food to live.
What really reinforces this message for me is the portrayal of Mija. As a protagonist she is almost a textbook example of Marxist alienation – a little girl fighting against the system who does not care for her wellbeing. But there are more walls between her and them than we are used to. Not only does she not belong to the world of big corporations, she doesn’t even understand it and its intentions. And by understand, I mean both know what they are and what they want and actually understand them; as Mija does not speak English and no one apart from one pro-eco activist speaks Korean.
This may sounds like a trivial trick, but it works brilliantly and, in reality, I imagine it is very hard to deliver such a language-split so well. It takes quite a skill to make these two languages flow alongside each other so naturally and for it to make a plot device of it on top makes it so much more special.
There are two sides to the linguistic alienation Mija is facing too. Firstly, there are the lies and the manipulation. She has no clue what people are actually saying to her. All she can rely on is smiles and happy faces, and that is really not a situation anyone would like to find themselves in. And even when from time to time someone who speaks both English and Korean shows up, they have no obligation to tell her the truth; so all she gets out of these accidental translators is a false sense of security and hope.
And secondly, of course, she cannot defend herself. She is already a little girl, which puts her very low on both the importance and physical strength scale. She has no money to back her up. The fact Mija cannot even make a speech in her defence and hope it would turn even one person into her ally puts her into an extremely defenceless position. There isn’t anything she can do for Okja other than try to persist – and her perseverance in the face of unknown adversity is probably the most touching thing about both Mija and this movie.
This lack of a means of communication translates further into Okja too, although on a more abstract level. Mija seem to be the only person able to communicate with her pig – and the only person that understands what her pig wants to say. She is Okja’s only translator, a gatekeeper to their own microcosm. The difference being, of course, that Mija genuinely wants good for Okja and tries to shield her from others; while the people who try to link Mija to the English-speaking world have their own agendas.
The relationship between Mija and Okja is a beautiful example of a friendship that happens to spark between a human and an animal. I know how hard it is to understand that animals feel too; and I do get the reasoning behind my species ahead of all others reasoning. It is then even more impressive how much the team behind Okja managed to make this big piece of CGI piggy / hippopotamus so much character, that the audience can actually root for her. It can be challenging to make an audience care about the animal (Although you should see my mum watching movies… Kill 100 people? Whatever. Kill a doggie? DIE, YOU SICK BASTARD) – but caring about a CGI creature that does not exist in our world is a completely different challenge.
But Okja feels, and cares, trusts and, sadly for everyone, learns too much about the bad side of human nature. My boyfriend found himself saying to me You know it’s different with animals one too many times, once the true purpose of Okja was revealed and I just couldn’t not think of Okja as a person. And she is more than an animal too – the writers made sure that we understand just how smart and developed the Super Pig really is. So not only the love of Mija and Okja gets amplified by this human side to Miss Super Pig, but also the torture and pain, and everything the poor thing gets dragged through.
On top of these two, Okja is a real gallery of interesting characters.
The leading ‘baddie’ role is played by Tilda Swinton, who apparently thought killing the lion Jesus was not bad enough, and is back for some more children-night-dreams-destroying actions. But the character she portrays is so much more than a vicious killer, the bad type we saw (amongst many) in the newest rendition of Paddington. No. Deep inside she is also just a little girl – with an inferiority complex that could win her some Inferiority Olympics without much competition, obsessed with making her late daddy proud or at least making her sister look worse than her. Lucy is incompetent, careless, neurotic, prone to mistakes; but her meaningless business talk is always on point.
Alongside Lucy we meet a TV star whose rankings dipped and the lack of fame turned him into… quite a pathetic human being. As much as I loved Okja, I feel like Johnny was the lowest of its points – too blatantly evil and unredeemable, he lacked the depth Lucy had so much of. Or maybe it was the fact that he was the one actually, you know, abusing Okja that made him more of a villain than the others;’ it is hard to tell. But next to so many well-executed details, Johnny seemed like a cheap and easy plot device rather than a person.
And then we had the eco-fighters. There are a vast spectrum of characters within this group too, some almost caricaturing the pro-eco movement, some devoted to the cause completely, some ready to take risk and some just ready to risk others. They may find themselves noble, but their nobility gets tested over and over and even the most die-hard fan of supporting animal rights at all cost could reasonably question some of their decisions.
Good intentions paving the road to hell kind of a proverb comes to mind, huh?
This may be the cast one expects of a movie like Okja, a defenceless protagonist, the Big Bad wolf of the meat industry and some eco-fighters to take the protagonists side, but this set-up is not as easy as it may seem. Even putting aside the grayscale of different character’s moral compasses and the fact that no one – other than Okja herself – is fully innocent here, one is still left with a story full of emotional twists and really good pacing. What starts as a feel-good, cheerful story, quickly turns into a dramatic fight against time and human nature. Not in an action-movie style though; sure, some scenes will feel like an action movie, but that is because they can hold tension really well – they still aim to serve an additional purpose other than entertainment. Very few fillers, a steady supply of emotional moments – these are Okja’s strengths.
At the end of the day it is an entertaining, well-done piece of cinematography. And it is not only nice scenery that puts us at ease – although now I do wish we had some more Korean settings around! Okja makes you smile, when it need to, laugh, when it needs to (Did I really laugh during a movie about animal slaughter? Do I have no heart?!), cry way more than I needed to, and constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat. The fate of the Super Pig is hard to foresee, things go right or wrong in a very unpredictable fashion and, what’s most important, nothing gets dull. A combination of very good writing and very good acting about something that matters – what else can one ask for?
The question remains – should you watch it? Yes and no. If you want to watch a very good movie, then yes, but at the same time if you’re anything like me and struggle to see such intense suffering… then maybe not. That’s something I struggle with personally, difficult movies like that, being an extremely visually-prone person, so I understand the feeling pretty well. There is a warning on Okja, definitely, but if you’re up for the challenge, you won’t be disappointed.