During a movie season dominated by superheroes, fast cars and fast-talkers, from left of centre comes this little jewel (actually not so little when you consider the central character) – Okja.
On paper, its a movie that looked unlikely to go anywhere on the world stage, cast as it is with a South Korean female lead and quite a large percentage of the dialogue also in Korean. Coupled together with a strong socio-political message and a very sympathetic take on animal activism, it was definitely not a film that was going to appeal to everyone.
And yet just a few months after its release on Netflix, Okja was in the running for the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
And there’s a reason for that…
This is one of the most original films you will see all year.
Putting all talk of animal activism aside for the moment, there is a profound point being made in this movie. It’s got nothing to do with whether you choose to eat meat or not (although I’ve read a lot of people have abstained from eating meat after watching the film).
More importantly I feel the message is about how we choose to treat our fellow inhabitants on this planet. Its easy to use the word ‘humane‘ in this context, but the concept of humanity in this day and age leaves a lot to be desired…
The more appropriate word to use would be ‘respect‘.
And so it is that we meet Okja, a so-called giant ‘super-pig’ – her kind, engineered and bred to provide unlimited amounts of meat to the world. Her existence is a means to an end and these super-pigs are treated as such by the Corporation that created them.
As part of a global, ten-year-long publicity campaign, a number of super-piglets are sent out to be raised by farmers across the world. In the mountains of South Korea (which are gorgeous by the way and may well have looked even more spectacular in the cinema instead of the limitations of a TV screen), young Mija and her farmer grandfather care for Okja, as she steadily grows and eventually reaches her gigantic proportions. Mila has developed a strong bond with the super-pig, and its clear that Okja is far more intelligent than any domestic animal and reciprocates the little girl’s affections.
But the truth of the matter is that Okja is destined for the slaughterhouse – a truth that Mija’s grandfather has kept from her…
Now it’s inevitable that any film about animals in distress is going to feature scenes that are uncomfortable and difficult to watch, especially if you’re an animal-lover. But they have a valid place in this film because they work to illustrate the bleak, behind-closed-doors operations of the factory-scale meat industry.
After Mija sets off on a rescue mission that looks destined to fail from the start, she becomes a reluctant co-conspirator with a quirky and less-than-efficient team of activists from the ‘Animal Liberation Front’. The movie is as much a story about Mija herself, uprooted from her idyllic mountain sanctuary and forced to grow up quickly as she is exposed to the harsh realities of dollars-and-cents corporations.
I won’t get into my own beliefs on the subject, but this film clearly has a message it’s trying to deliver, and it does so in bucketfuls.
There are some scenes that are difficult to watch – and at the centre of these, is a remarkable and eerie performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. He plays a warped and unhinged caricature of a crocodile-hunter-type TV host whose flagging career is dependant on the success of the super-pig campaign.
Gyllenhaal’s performance captures the darkness that engulfs the man as he sinks to ever disturbing depths.
From the second act onwards, the plot winds and twists at lightning pace – but it pays to hold on, as the emotional payoff in the final few scenes gives the entire movie a sense of completeness, and not without a few lumps in the throat as well…
From purposeful social commentary in the screenplay, to beautifully crafted visuals that bring Okja to life and convey a myriad of emotions through her eyes – this is another work of art by director Joon-ho Bong.
But as much as this is social commentary, it’s also an incredibly engaging tale about a young girl who is trying to free her best friend (who happens to be a super-pig) from captivity. A simple premise, but a triumph of the imagination.
If only to have had the chance to watch it in potentially greater glory on the big screen… but that’s a discussion for another time.