Bong Joon-Ho continues to make outlandishly quirky films and they surprisingly resonate with most audiences. How does he do it? With The Host, he made a film about a lake monster which has its genesis owing to illegal waste dumping in the world’s water sources. Amazing. With Snowpierecer, he made a film about the prevalent class system plaguing the world using different classes of people live in different sections of a train circling the world (as a metaphor) because post-apocalypse. Astounding. With Memories of Murder, he made a film about the fragility of confidence and ego while treating us to the quirkiest set of detectives put to film. God damn it. How? And now we have Okja.
Okja follows the story of little girl Mija and her quest to save her pet super-pig Okja from being slaughtered. Okja is a one amongst 26 rare pigs seemingly discovered by Tilda Swinton’s corporation. These pigs grow to enormous sizes and are believed to be the answer to the world’s hunger crisis. The pigs are sent across the world to 26 different farmers which are to be taken back to HQ after 10 years to be bred and fed to the world. As Will Smith from the 90s would say, DAYUM!
The absurdity of the concept aside, Okja is a fantastically fun time at the… um… Netflix. Rarely do I see a film that has such a great handle on its inherent silliness. A person accustomed to Bong Joon-ho’s work knows the style the filmmaker goes for and to the ones unaccustomed to it, “Welcome To The Party!” To paraphrase V from V for Vendetta, Bong Joon-Ho uses over-the-top ness to get prescient messages across while seldom taking sides. This is a tight rope act in every sense of the word but the man has talents that lend to such possessing a distinctive aura about his work. This might divide most audiences but to me, this is cinematic bliss.
Gorgeous shots of pristine Korean wilderness which are quickly replaced by the concrete jungle (so to speak) create a fantastic backdrop for a story that has more depth to it than it initially lets on. While some of the hijinks might seem implausible (Mija has to die 500 different times through the course of the movie) and some of the performances might come off as jarring, the film has a firm handle on what I feel is a very important message that kids need help understanding. Mind you, the film might not be fully appropriate for most kids.
While the ethical and political debate about animal rights rage on through the course of the film and our real world, the film shrouds its most important lesson under the sea of endless PCP induced posturing. Without spoiling the fantastic final sequence, the film teaches Mija that the real world has no time for her emotions. The film teaches her that the world works via the barter system and to have something you love, you need to part with something too. I cannot begin to stress how important a lesson this is for not only children but a few grown-ups as well.
As a personal opinion, I cringe when films/people tell children that believing in themselves or true love will melt even the hardest of people while facilitating dream accomplishments. As most of us know, this is a fallacy and this film intelligently weaves this message into its narrative without ever being heavy handed about it.
Neither the Animal Liberation Front nor the big businesswomen seem entirely out of place with their belief systems. While the people who want to save the animals/have them be treated fairly seem right when decency is taken into account, I end up asking myself “if I was a man in a remote country with no access to clean food or water (let alone internet) how seriously would I consider the living condition of livestock when I could starve to death if I chose not to eat said animal’s meat?” I would never know because I’m yet to be in such a perilous position. These two sides have been wrestling in mind for as long as I can remember and being a vegetarian myself, I could make arguments favoring both sides.
My personal thoughts aside, the film has a fantastic cast of characters all of whom (except Mija) are gloriously over the top. From that guy in the ALF who refuses to eat anything because he wants to leave no footprint on the earth to Jake Gyllenhaal’s ridiculous animal scientist, each character is rendered to be as such because the story is being processed through the eyes of a child. While this might not excuse the film’s campiness for a few, viewing the film through this prism might help most to connect to it better. The loud and jarring culture shock a city might levy onto a child living in the mountains is explored quite vividly.
While the film has its issues and is most definitely not for all comers, I’m hard pressed to find another piece of media that aligned with my thoughts about the animal rights issue to such a high degree. The film does not provide any answers but I commend it for asking the right questions. Once one looks past all the caricatures it creates, (based on a few real world people) the film is sweet yet fantastical story carried by one of the best child performances this side of The Host.