Like the past works of writer-director Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, The Host), Okja isn’t so much an allegory as it is an outright morality tale. The Korean filmmaker seem intent on tackling each and every woe of modern society, from the danger of radioactive waste (and by extension, the short-sighted profit-seeking of big business) in The Host to the accelerating divisions between the wealthy and the poor in Snowpiercer. In Okja, Bong once again wraps his morality tale in a bit of science fiction. The titular Okja is one of several genetically-enhanced pigs, bred for slaughter in an attempt to solve the world’s hunger crisis. Where The Host was an obvious Monster Movie, and Snowpiercer more of a dystopian science fiction film, Okja is mostly a dark piece of satire. It’s just not clear who Bong means to target with his barbs.
The plot is fairly straightforward, but has a lot of moving parts. There are essentially three factions set against each other. The prime mover of the plot is the Mirando Corporation. Lucy Mirando becomes CEO and has a new environmentally-friendly and sustainable vision for the corporation: to breed genetically-enhanced superpigs that will represent the most-efficient source of animal protein on the planet. Twelve pigs are bred for a pilot study and placed all around the world to determine to best conditions for the pigs. Okja is the pig raised in South Korea. His handler is Mija, and she and Okja enjoy romping through the lush Korean countryside. Finally, there is an animal rights group called the Animal Liberation Front that seeks to expose the terrible truths behind the Mirando corporation and their Frankenpigs. The tension of the plot comes from a simple place: Okja is the best of the Superpigs, so the Mirando corporation wants to take him from Mija and parade him in front of the press as a publicity stunt.
Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of players in each faction. Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and Okja stand alone, with each other group jockeying for their favor. The Mirando Corporation features people like Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), twin sister of Nancy, the previous CEO; Mirando spokesperson and zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), ex-TV personality whose waning stardom weighs heavily on his mental stability; and Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito), actual brains behind the Mirando corporation, cold and calculating businessperson.
The ALF is replete with characters that match this absurdity. Jay (Paul Dano) is the leader of the group, a granola-munching Green who feels the pain of every cruelty against animals but won’t hesitate to administer a beating to one of his compatriots for “going against the ALF philosophy”. The other significant member of ALF (at least according to the story) is the translator K, who is responsible for communicating ALF’s wishes to Mija, but is quick to provide translations that benefit his own views on the matters at hand.
Each of these characters, with the exception of Okja and Mija, has at least a tinge of absurdity to them and seem to hold fundamental contradictions. The environmentalism of Lucy Mirando is set against her desire to slaughter the superpigs for profit, the non-violence of Jay is set against the way he reprimands his fellow animal lovers, and even Dr. Wilcox’s appreciation for Nature and animals is set against his eventual treatment of Okja, revealing a far more sinister motivation underneath his pulpy surface.
These contradictions help to lend Okja its peculiar tone, always balancing between outright sincerity and outlandish satire. There’s a lot of sardonism here, but it isn’t quite clear who the ultimate target is. The obvious answer is the Mirando Corporation, not only because Big Business is the default villain in every story, but also because their ultimate goal is very easily seen as “evil” – they want to create a species for the sole purpose of slaughtering it for food. And yet, their abject profit-seeking is so transparent and so outrageously depicted, one gets the feeling that they aren’t the only target. Plus, it is worth noting that their ultimate goal is a defensible one: they want to feed the hungry. They just want to make as much money as possible in the meantime.
ALF is definitely shown as a positive force in the film, but it is not without its own strangeness. They are shown as righteous zealots, too caught up in their crusade to be reasonable anymore. They’ll lie, cheat, steal, and destroy if it meets their ends, and they care less about Okja as an individual than they do about what she represents: the perfect tool to expose the Mirando Corporation.
The ultimate result of this grapeshot-style of satirical storytelling is a bizarre mixture of hilarity, sarcasm, and utter bleakness. Okja can be as grim and brutal as it is awkward, funny, and biting. As such, it is not a film for everyone, but it is undeniably powerful.
But, does it work as a whole? Mostly, I think it does. There are certainly harrowing and poignant moments, but the ideology behind Okja isn’t particularly clear or straightforward. The climax of the film revolves around a specific piece of symbolism that appears spectacular on the surface, but actually solves nothing – a pretty detail without the intended significance. In the end, Mija finds Okja in the Mirando slaughterhouse, and offers up a solid-gold statue of a pig to the new Mirando CEO, Nancy. She received this trinket from her grandfather in an attempt to make Okja’s departure easier to swallow. Hilariously, Nancy bites the statue to test if it is genuine, then accepts the trade. After all, the gold is worth more than Okja’s body would fetch on the market. Thus, Okja and Mija escape, and they even smuggle out a newborn superpig. But, is this really happily ever after?
I’ll agree, the symbolism is strong – Mirando values money over all, whereas Mija values Okja’s life and companionship. Yet, thousands of other superpigs are still led to the slaughter, Mirando is triumphant, and there’s no true “winner” and “loser” here. Perhaps Bong is claiming that the relative value of an animal’s life is to be decided by each individual, as each side of the ideological struggle has its own crazies and contradictions. Unfortunately, that’s a bit of a lackluster thematic statement from someone as opinionated and pointed as Bong.
Still, Ojka is another piece of strong allegorical filmmaking from Bong, delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The trouble is, there isn’t a satisfying place for the blow to land. Should it be the corporate interests? The animal right’s activists? The Media? The public? Satire pointed at every player in the game feels like a condemnation of the whole shebang. Is Bong’s point that the proper life is one spent in the Korean countryside, basking in the sun care-free? This kind of idyllic existence is easy to admire, but impossible to to make a realistic option for everyone across the world. As such, Okja feels a little noncommittal, playing all sides against each other. It does so very well, but the result is horribly muddled from a thematic standpoint.