Okja is the new film from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, whose most notable works include the hit sci-fi monster movie The Host, and the criminally under-seen post-apocalyptic runaway train flick, Snowpiercer. Like both of these, Okja carries a strong eco-friendly message, although here that message is less of a plot set up and more of a central theme.
Mija is a young girl living on a remote mountainside in South Korea with her grandfather, and is the proud owner and best friend of a super intelligent, super-pig, the eponymous Okja. At this point one would be forgiven for expecting the movie to remain the charmingly fey story of a lonely girl and her special friend. Perhaps some life lessons are there to be learned.
But then Okja is taken away by the Mirando Corporation, a food industry giant that bred Okja, allowed her to live in peace until fully grown and now wants her back to run some tests. At least that’s what they’re saying.
The movie then transitions brilliantly into caper territory as members of the Animal Liberation Front led by Jay, played with near mystical zeal by Paul Dano, attempt to rescue Okja, and Mija comes along for the ride. This section of the movie is exciting and full of the kind of off-beat humour Bong Joon-ho is known for; in one sequence Okja, her arse hanging out the back of a lorry, fires hard rounds turds at their pursuers.
But despite the whimsy, despite the action, despite the comedy, more than anything Okja is a searing demolition of the food industry. There are no depths that the Mirando Corporation– led by a believably grotesque Tilda Swinton – won’t stoop to in order to convince the public to eat their delicious new meat products. Worse still, when the company suffers a PR disaster and a new CEO is brought in, the message is made clear – the public don’t need to be manipulated, the product just needs to be cheap and delicious and then they’ll eat anything. The food industry may be evil, but we’re all complicit in their crimes.
At its most extreme the movie directly compares the conditions that animals are forced to endure to the Nazi death camps of WWII. This is of course a highly contentious idea, and will prove a difficult pill to swallow for the average movie-goer. But the brilliance of Okja is to force us to gulp it down nonetheless, by engaging us with the story of an intelligent, sensitive animal whose life is threatened by the food industry.
Okja is a charming, exciting, thought provoking movie the sneaks in an important message that some viewers may find unpalatable.