Okja: The Veggie-Prop Children’s Film You Really Need to See

The director of Snowpiercer is back with a kiddie film that meets vegetarian propaganda, with surprising success.

Michael Atkinson

Mika and Okja will turn out even more young vegetarians than Fern and Wilbur. (Netflix)

For someone whose films are bursting with outrageous computer imagery, and whose sensibility could be characterized as hyperviolent satiric pulp, Korean director Bong Joon-ho sure is a gung-ho Captain Planet. His 2013 film Snowpiercer was a ludicrous parable about class warfare set on a giant train forever barreling around an ecologically devastated Earth. Before that, 2006’s The Host—possibly the best giant-rubber-monster movie ever made — generated its creature out of industrial pollution, the first sci-fi movie to explicitly villainize toxic dumping since Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1972). His new film, Okja, is essentially a family film” that makes a scorched-earth case for vegetarianism.

The first affront for any audience member under 12 would be the non-explicit “forced mating” Okja endures in a holding cell, beneath a larger mutant pig.

Or, at least, against eating meat — which means, by definition, inflicting cruelty, misery and murder on an industrial scale. As always, Bong’s brushstroke is as wide as a barn: The film’s first blast is a publicity blitz around the cultivation of super-pigs,” mutant porkers the size of two hippos, which are sent to farms around the world in a pilot program to establish a new and economical source of processable meat. Everyone has to wait ten years, we’re told by Tilda Swinton’s preening, haute-couture CEO, and then we’ll see if they taste fucking good.”

Cut to 10 years later, to a mountainside in South Korea, where the titular super-pig — a vast, blubbery CGI that looks and behaves more like a swollen dog than a pig — cavorts in the verdant wilderness with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), a pubescent girl living with her grandfather. The girl and the pig are, reflexively, bonded partners for life, a trope YA fiction has been using, well, forever. Immediately we see Bong’s conflictive style — the film is an in-your-face hybrid, half Spielbergian kid-&-pet fable, half keening satire on commercial capitalism. He wants it both ways, often in a single scene, and sometimes he gets it, conflating absurd excess and pathos and making it sting your eyes.

As the winner of the super-pig promotional contest, Okja is whisked away suddenly (by a giggling animal-show celebrity host played with lunatic glee by Jake Gyllenhaal) for a gala presentation in New York, and then, we learn, to the slaughterhouse. A pissed-off Mija, in a tireless tradition of super-spunky tween heroines, decides to follow and bring him home. Her path is quickly crossed by a band of violence-adverse eco-terrorists, namely the Animal Liberation Front, led by teary-eyed near-maniac Paul Dano, who manage to shanghai Okja and Mija.

A great number of chases and computerized action chaos follows, as Okja blasts through a Seoul subway mall with fumbling cops and security teams in tow. Anyone familiar with Bong’s films will recognize the dialectic sensibility at work, and also the awkward humor. But where’s the bite? Fans of Memories of Murder (2003) and Mother (2009) will be pining with me for those films’ acidic nastiness, lyrical ambivalence and CGI-free scenery, and mourning how the Korean New Wave, of which Bong was an integral figure, devolved so quickly into a mini-Hollywood, complete with hard drives doing most of the heavy lifting.

To be fair, Okja herself is a lovely creation. But there’s little or no ambivalence in Bong’s film, although it does go properly dark as Okja is dragged into the heart of this near-future’s meat processing systems. The first affront for any audience member under 12 would be the non-explicit forced mating” Okja endures in a holding cell, beneath a larger mutant pig. As a soju-drunk Gyllenhaal yowls in delight, the eco-terrorists watch on an illicit surveillance feed, and their traumatized reactions to the violation will, I think, echo those experienced by any kids lured by the cute mega-pet and hoping for a purely affirmative matinee glow.

But even our exposure to that scandalous moment is minimized, as Bong plays to every demographic. The passage of the film that lingers in the abattoir and stockyard, with glimpses of killed, skinned, butchered and rack-hung super-pigs, almost fulfills the aspects of Bong’s premise that doesn’t cater to little children. In the end, he might convert a few hot dog fans. But it’s hardly a pop-digital version of Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949), which took no prisoners in showing how exactly the food we buy everyday is born out of cold-blooded agony and horror. Early in the film, Mija eats both fish and chicken dishes — is meat only murder when the animal is super-cute?

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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