Much like Okja the genetically modified pig, Okja the film had a controversial and ground-breaking genesis. It is one of the first major films to be funded and produced by Netflix and was released exclusively on its streaming service, bypassing the cinema altogether. This is a move that makes a lot of sense for Okja’s director, Bong Joon-ho, who has been burnt before by traditional studio production models: Harvey Weinstein denying Bong the final cut of his 2013 film Snowpiercer is the reason it ultimately received only a limited US release and never made it to the UK. On Okja, however, Bong had total free reign, with mostly successful results.
The film opens on Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando, the new CEO of the sprawling, hyperbolically evil Mirando Corporation, giving a press conference to unveil the revamped, friendly face of her company and its new Super Pig project. Bong gets some hefty exposition out of the way early: Mirando have (reportedly) developed a non-GM, high-yield new species of meat-producing animal, their “super piglets”, and are entrusting the best of the bunch to farmers around the world for ten years, at the end of which they will reward the rearer of the biggest, juiciest pig a prize in New York city. The titular Okja is one such piglet, entrusted to a farmer in the South Korean mountains and his granddaughter, Mija. Mija and Okja grow up in tandem, sharing a bond that goes beyond the barrier between animal and human: Okja, we are shown, understands human language, can think sophisticatedly and experiences emotions. Mija, however, has no idea what fate awaits her pet and closest companion, and ten years on when the company duly come back to claim Okja as competition winner, Mija must set out to rescue her on a trip that takes her to New York via Seoul.
The gender politics of Okja reward scrutiny. Mija is both the film’s central character and the film’s moral centre, and she is both non-white and a girl. Hers is a multi-faceted role: she is saviour, ingénue and rebel at various points in the story, but she has the greatest agency in her homeland of Korea. Once she arrives in America, her lack of English leaves her open to being manipulated and deceived, but she learns quickly from these incidents how to manipulate in return. When Mija’s grandfather tells her that Okja will be leaving them, he complains thus: “You’re nearly a grown woman, I don’t like you playing with that pig all day… You should go to town, meet a boy…” At this, Mija hurls his empty gift of a golden pig (in exchange for Okja) on the ground and runs away.
Mija consistently refuses to follow orders and only does so when she sees them as a way of getting closer to saving her pig. Here we have a teenage female protagonist who defies sexualisation or subjugation, so much so that it becomes a source of humour when Mirando’s publicity department decide to try and make her into a traditionally feminine corporate poster girl. The idea that Mija in a bum bag and trainers, the same girl who has jumped onto moving vehicles and broken down doors to get to Okja, should be made “totally gorgeous, totally sexy, hot, tiny, perfect” is laughable. Here, Bong also takes a swipe at corporate exploitation of ‘trendy’ Asian image: one of the PR consultants at Mirando says offhand: “don’t force an image on her like Benetton did with those Asian models.” Which is, of course, exactly what they do, dressing her and Lucy Mirando up in matching pastel pink traditional Korean hanbok dresses. Mija is the only character in a large ensemble cast who is depicted as having unshakeable integrity, the only character who is never being made fun of, but is not snoringly serious either. This is unusual for a young heroine.
Okja also offers us two contrasting portraits of corporate womanhood in the Mirando twins Lucy and Nancy, both played by Tilda Swinton à la Hail, Caesar. Nancy, unseen until the film’s last act, is a hard-nosed, Thatcher-a-like, a pure caricature of the icy businesswoman. Nancy remains un-nuanced and as such uninteresting but, in the character of Lucy, Bong gives us more to chew on. Lucy could easily have been a second, though contrasting pantomime villain: the superficially friendly but soulless CEO of the evil company. Instead, we see Lucy candidly discussing her belief in the project behind closed doors, her self-doubt in her dressing room and the crushing expectations of both Nancy and her father, Mirando’s former head.
The film also contains some sideways glances at the issue of consent. Mija’s consent to the plan hatched by the earnest but cack-handed Animal Liberation Front to send Okja into the Miranda laboratories with a hidden camera is taken from her: she is asked in Korean, responds “no” in Korean, and is intentionally mistranslated back into English. But more importantly in terms of what the film has to say about the meat industry, there is the particularly (even gratuitously) unpleasant scene at the Mirando basement laboratories. Here, Okja is introduced to Alfonso, her “new boyfriend”, and forced to mate with him. Given that the film has established that Okja possesses high intelligence and emotional capacity, the word “rape” hangs unspoken in the air, and we are made to feel uncomfortable with the idea that forced mating is routine in the meat industry. And Okja is forced to mate by Dr Johnny, who later intentionally harms her with a meat extraction device. He justifies his actions by referring to his humiliation in the boardroom by Lucy Mirando, saying that “when a man is humiliated by a woman in front of his own colleagues, a man is inclined to make his own decisions”.
This moment of extracting meat from Okja is, then, explicitly tied to Dr Jonny’s manhood. The link between meat-eating and masculinity has been extensively documented by scholars like Carol J. Adams, who argue that the two are inextricable from each other as both are founded on the idea of ownership of other bodies, be they animal or female, and the right to use them to feed their needs, nutritional or sexual. Bong’s film is much more nuanced than it could have been. It is not black and white anti-meat propaganda: Mija is not a vegetarian, as we see her eating fish stew at the beginning of the film. Okja exposes the problematic nature of the meat industry from various different angles, gender being one of them, but does not posit a simple no-meat solution. That said, you would still be hard pressed to chow down on a hot dog after viewing: in fact, the point is made that hot dogs in particular are made of the face and anus of pigs. The scenes towards the film’s close set in an abattoir are expertly shot in high contrast and harsh lighting to generate maximum horror out of images that most viewers will be familiar with the idea of at least: bloody floors, the roar or machines and a wobbling, flabby side of carcass being sliced in two.
It’s not just faux corporate chumminess, the meat industry and Western attitudes to Asia that come under Bong and co-writer Jon Ronson’s lense: social media obsession is also fair game here. As Okja runs amok through a subterranean Seoul shopping centre, a young woman tries to flee and clutch her selfie stick at the same time to get a video of herself and the pig; Mija is constantly being asked to stop for photos for the company’s Twitter feed; upbeat, Facebook-style soundtracks accompany Lucy Mirando’s appearances. So, Bong has produced a tonally eclectic satire of several different subjects and, unlike some ambitious satires, it is genuinely amusing throughout, right down to the costume details: Nancy Mirando’s Burberry patterned travel pillow, for instance. The humour is quirky and often unexpected. This serves the purpose of softening the edges of the socio-political content of the film, which might otherwise have been heavy-handed moralising.
Okja is, fittingly, a strange beast: part eco-political morality tale, part slapstick, part creature feature, things that don’t always gel. Jake Gyllehall’s insanely broad and overdone performance as TV presenter and zoologist Dr Johnny, for instance, is distractingly awful. And there are moments where Bong’s grip on the various different threads grows slack, particularly with regards to character development; incidents like Lucy’s right hand man manipulating her, the ALF head Jay’s sudden violence and Dr Johnny’s needless cruelty to Okja are promises of further explanation that the film never makes good on.
Taken as a whole, however, one feels that something exciting is being done in the throwing together of these disparate elements, something exciting that only Netflix would take a punt on Bong attempting. This is a film that was financed for the small screen but, in some ways, made for a big one. It does seem a loss that the majority of viewers will see Okja on a laptop: the gigantic super pigs are begging to be seen in large format. However, the fact that the film is a critical success could mean important opportunities for more filmmakers than just Bong himself. Admittedly, the first two directors to premier Netflix-produced films at Cannes were male: Bong and Noah Baumbach. For a while now, though, Netflix has been providing the platform and backing for television series made by and focusing on women, series like Jessica Jones, Orange is the New Black, Grace & Frankie. If Netflix as a film studio are willing to finance projects that other traditional studios are turning down, like Okja, one hopes this opens a much needed door to women filmmakers, too.