Movie Review – Okja
This is the film that got most of the press at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the 70th Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or, but Netflix is distributing the movie and next year Cannes will not allow Netflix to have its films in competition at the festival because of a strict rule that films at Cannes have to play in French theaters and not be released online prior. Netflix may make deals to screen the movie in France or in various countries including the director’s home country of South Korea, but currently this movie can only be seen in three theaters in the United States and only for a limited time. Otherwise, it’s available on Netflix.
Likely, those theaters are only to qualify the film for the Academy Awards. The Academy ignored Netflix’s last attempt at an awards push. Oddly, that last attempt also was a feature that centered around a child character. Both movies are vastly different in tone, but in terms of message and even cinematography, Beasts of No Nation is better than this. This movie though is more palatable, more entertaining and obviously more comedic. It’s in fact more of a film for children even though young children probably wouldn’t get the intricacies of the GMO debate.
An Seo Hyun stars as Mija Joo, a 13 or 14-year-old girl in South Korea whose best friend is a giant pig, a pig that is literally the size of a large rhinoceros or a medium elephant. The pig is named Okja and Mija has raised Okja for ten years. They live with Mija’s grandfather in a tiny farm in the woods up in the mountains. We have no clue where or what happened to her parents. We also don’t know if she’s in school or if she has any human friends or wants any. Basically, it’s just her hanging out with this huge pig in the forest near a stream that they splash and catch fish in.
Movies about children and their pets are timeless and easy sentimentality. The classic is a boy and his dog, going all the way back to Lassie Come Home (1943). Of course, there have been variations on this theme where the gender of the child will be changed or the animal will be swapped with something else. E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) made the animal an alien from another planet. Pete’s Dragon (2016) made the animal a mythical fire-breathing and flying lizard. Regardless, the movies all follow a similar path.
This one had the potential to be different because most of the time these child-and-their-pet movies don’t involve a pet that can be found in the grocery store and on most people’s breakfast tables. Most people don’t look at Lassie as something that would go well with eggs and toast. Most Americans do eat pig meat. This goes for the other barnyard animals like chickens and cows.
There have been films that have dealt with this tension of how humans should regard these animals that we use for food. Babe (1995) and Charlotte’s Web (2006) are two examples that put a pig at its center. Those movies, however, didn’t try to make humans feel guilty for eating pigs as aggressively as this movie does. If you have ever enjoyed sausage on an egg sandwich, bacon on a BLT, pork jerky, barbecue ribs or ham for Thanksgiving, then this movie wants you to feel bad about it.
In a way, it was reminiscent of Fast Food Nation (2006). The difference is that Richard Linklater’s film argued about the effects the meat industry were having on people, the health effects and the economic effects on people. This movie doesn’t care about people or really any other animal. Its sympathies and only sympathies lie with the pigs and specifically Okja. Its bigotry in that regard is actually the opposite of sympathetic.
It starts with a faulty premise. Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer and The Chronicles of Narnia) stars as Lucy Mirando, the head of the Mirando corporation that is based in New York City and is focused on the meat industry. Her company has genetically modified pigs, making them bigger and supposedly better tasting. She lies to the press though and convinces the world that the pigs are naturally grown and given free range. She lies because of the controversy about genetically modified organisms, or GMO, especially GMO as food. Her premise is that she’s doing this to end world hunger.
Her idea is that bigger pigs will solve world hunger. This is also the idea of director and co-writer Bong Joon-ho, and it is a faulty idea because it suggests world hunger is the result of a lack of food. This isn’t true. According to the World Hunger Education Service or WHES, the problem isn’t a lack of food. On WHES’s web site, WorldHunger.org, it’s reported that there is enough food to feed every human. The problem is poverty and people not having enough income to purchase that food. Therefore, a giant pig wouldn’t help a single starving person in the real-world, unless Lucy’s company was giving the meat away for free, which her company isn’t doing.
However, even if we accepted this faulty premise, more problems arise in regard to the group that Joon-ho uses to help the young girl Mija protect Okja from Lucy’s company. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine) co-stars as Jay, the leader of the Animal Liberation Front, or ALF, which claims to want to free all animals from abuse like slaughterhouses. ALF comes across as an extreme group that’s just as comical and just as worthy of being mocked as Lucy Mirando and her company, but it feels as though Joon-ho wants the ALF to be the heart of the film. Jay even tells Mija in one scene that “we love you.”
Jay and the others in the ALF make this argument that the animals are being abused while in captivity and the one example that Joon-ho holds up is when Okja is forced to have sex with an even bigger pig named Alfonso. The ALF is able to capture video of it. To the ALF and by the way Joon-ho depicts it, it’s tantamount to rape. However, scientists and studies wouldn’t necessarily equate mating or breeding in the animal kingdom to human rape, even when it involves what’s called “sexual coercion.” It’s generally not considered to be the same thing, but this movie seems to argue differently.
Lucy says there are only 26 of these giant pigs. This is a lie. The truth is she’s hiding more, hundreds more. If it were up to the ALF, they would liberate all these pigs and let them loose in the wild. The United Nations has a consulting group called the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, and, according to this group, feral pigs are on the list of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. If giant pigs like Okja were just unleashed into the wild, the damage to whatever ecosystem could be disastrous.
In the film, Okja is shown as having a penchant for fish. If all those giant pigs were released into the wild, it would be devastating to the environment. They would decimate the fish, other small animals or crops. The ALF claims to care about animals. What about those animals who would be devastated if what is a new and invasive species like Okja were unleashed? Yet, this film has no interest in those questions. It merely takes the typical hard-line that corporations are evil and this little farm girl is nothing but a pure angel and her desires supersede all else.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 1 min.