Okja is a film so affecting and moving that it will stir up emotions and thoughts you didn’t
know were within you.
When the movie opens, the CEO of the Mirando corporation (Tilda Swinton) is giving a presentation about her food company’s solution to growing need for food. The have created a genetically-engineered “super-pig”. Several of these piglets have been sent to live on farms in different parts of the world, where they will live for the next decade. The top specimen will be revealed before the world.
We then are taken to the mountains of S. Korea where we meet Okja, a super pig who’s been living here for 10 years with 14-year-old Mija and her grandfather. Mija is an orphan and Okja is her best friend in this isolated corner of the world. What follows is a magical sequence of the two frolicking in their beautiful countryside. They hike together, explore, cuddle and embrace as any dog and companion would and Okja Assists Mija in her fishing expedition, jumping off a cliff at one point into a pond below, causing the fish to burst onto land so Mija can collect them for that night’s fish stew. Upon returning home from their day’s activities Mija discovers visitors from the Mirando corporation including a zany TV personality veterinarian played by Jake Gyllenhaal who seems to have raided Hunter S. Thompson’s wardrobe.
This character is here to inspect Okja and he is impressed by what he sees. Mija soon discovers that Okja is to be taken to the United States and put on display as the prime example of a successful super-pig. She will eventually be slaughtered and sold as food.
The disruption of the peaceful life shared by Okja and Mija and their introduction into a larger, crueler world is the first of many heartbreaking elements of this also very endearing story. Mija is 14 and because she’s lived in a remote area with only her grandfather and her beloved super-pig, she has little knowledge of the complexities and harshness of the outside, industrialized world. Okja is of course an animal, although a highly intelligent one, and also isn’t familiar with the effects of capitalism. The two are about to learn about these realities at the same time and this loss of innocence is perhaps the emotional core of the film.
Mija embarks on a journey from her farm to rescue her friend. This takes her to Seoul where she finds Okja just in time to see the truck she’s being loaded onto. She is joined by members of the Animal Liberation Front, a group also trying to rescue Okja. The sequence through the Mirando labs and in which they follow in a car behind Okja are thrilling, funny and high-stakes. At one moment, John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” plays and the action moves to slow motion, bringing a memorable lyricism to this rescue. The group eventually manages to stop the truck carrying Okja in a tunnel with dozens of other cars containing drivers able to view this creature for the first time. Okja emerges from the vehicle into the crowded tunnel and spots Mija. The two see each other again for the first time, both of them in an unfamiliar probably scary place. Okja lets out a bellow and runs toward Mija, lifts her up onto her back so she can ride and the two run off together. By incorporating this bond between the two, Bong-Joon ho has created a chase sequence as exciting as that in many Bond films, but with as much emotional resonance as in a Hollywood tearjerker.
Okja eventually ends up back in the hands of the Mirando corporation and Mija follows her to a slaughterhouse in New Jersey where the film shows the horrors of factory farming. We see a large, open range filled with hundreds of super pigs as they are being shocked with a cattle prod and forced up a ramp on their way to their deaths. Inside the building are hanging carcases, the sound and sight of industrial saws tearing through dead flesh, and machinery that enables an assembly-line production method. Okja narrowly escapes the fate of many of her species and seeing this beautiful animal who has brought so much joy and companionship to young Mija be corralled toward such a grisly end is one of the most heart wrenching experiences a film has ever provided. When Mija intervenes and rescues Okja it is done with such a simple touch of basic humanity that the movie follows up something horrible with something equally beautiful. Inside this sprawling, largely mechanized facility of mass production, where legislation attempts for better practices and the outcries of animal-rights activists have failed to cease these abuses, this young girl manages to disrupt the system and place a face, an identity and to borrow from A.O. Scott’s wonderful New York Times review, a soul on Okja. Over the course of this film we’ve come to love Okja, but we now see her as not just one animal, but all animals. This is done in the film without any words, but the moment has more power than a thousand articles about corporate agriculture. This is another miracle of Joon-ho’s masterpiece and why it is more effective at touching us than Fast Food Nation. That film, Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s muckraking examination of the effects of demand for quick, cheap food, like the book itself, was more of a lecture than a moving experience. It managed to present troubling information but wasn’t able to break the disconnect between what we know and how we feel. Human beings have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. This is a necessary survival tool and if we didn’t have this we’d be so overwhelmed with feeling over the atrocities and injustices of the world that we wouldn’t be able to function. For that reason it’s very tough to create a work of art that will erase the line between knowledge and feeling and it’s even harder for this to cause a lasting effect. This probably makes the movie seem a lot less enjoyable than it actually is. It’s definitely at times tough to take, but at times it is also heartwarming, funny and whimsical. Joon-ho has created a rousing adventure that is also an important cultural examination.
Watching Okja might have a profound effect on you, causing you to look at your food differently and rethink the way we conduct ourselves as a society. It might turn you into one of those people who cries at videos of unlikely animal friends, it may cause you to regress to a childlike state where you wish we could live in a kinder, gentler world, or it may make you hug your dog more often. As Scott pointed out in his review, this movie makes no overt ethical statement on the consumption of animals, as indicated by the early scene of Mija and Okja working together to make fish stew. In addition to the cinematic marvels of the film, perhaps the major achievement of Okja is that it leads us to question whether our dependency on quick-service, mass produced foods is worth the methods behind much of the production. This is definitely food for thought worthy of consumption.