‘Okja’ Is a Powerful, Cross-Cultural Epic

‘Okja’ dives right into the thick of it — that being the cross-continental story of the giant super pig the film is named for.

With the likes of ‘The Host’ and ‘Snowpiercer’ under his belt, director Bong Joon Ho is back making waves with ‘Okja,’ a movie about Mija, a young Korean girl played by Seo-Hyun Ahn, who unknowingly helps raise said super pig for slaughter in the mountains of Korea. Their friendship is the movie’s heartbeat, the opening scenes of the film solidifying that in a way that feels real and genuine. When it becomes apparent what lies in store for Okja, the pet super pig not unlike a giant, two-ton puppy, Mija embarks on an epic, whirlwind journey to save her best friend from a terrible fate.

She predictably runs into her fair share of obstacles all throughout, but without giving too much away, the predictability ends there. Every time you think you know what’s about to happen, there’s a twist. You may find yourself asking: ‘is this too good to be true? Is this really happening? Are they going to make it? Will they pull this off?’ And you may find the answers gut you, delight you and settle you all in one.

That said, while the characters often seem fantastical, the premise of the story is rooted in a similar reality we could someday face: Okja is part of a ten-year experiment meant to be a solution to world hunger, even at the cost of the animals’ quality of life.

I procrastinated watching this film because I was selfishly worried it might be more painful propaganda than anything. After all, who wants to witness the horrors inflicted upon poor, innocent animals? Though there are several scenes that depict such cruel acts against them (beware, the abuse and violence can be difficult to stomach at times), ‘Okja’ touches on incredibly important issues with regards to animal rights and how companies profit when those rights are disregarded for the sake of consumers — all without seeming too preachy. It’s not quite ‘Blackfish,’ though you may think twice the next time you see meat on the menu, which is entirely the point.

More than a metaphor for animal rights, though, this film is empowering in that its cast and their performances are inherently diverse. Bong never shies away from the fact that Mija primarily speaks Korean, nor the fact that there can be misunderstandings between her and those who don’t (believe this, if nothing else). There aren’t any nonsensical efforts to adjust for English-speaking audiences, and the film never runs the risk of making the language barrier into a gag. After all, this story demands much more than that. It’s handled realistically, and with a fluidity other filmmakers ought to take note of when telling similar stories.

As a result, Mija is simply the heroine, and Okja her family. Imagine that: in an almost unprecedented show of representation during a time when so many mainstream films excuse whitewashing roles for the sake of commercial success, a young Asian girl, who speaks only one line of English throughout the entirety of this movie, is our protagonist.

And she absolutely triumphs at it.

Bong desired to tell a story that went beyond the borders of any one country, that was more than race or creed, and in doing so, created something meaningful that both acknowledges those differences and dispels them in the best of ways.

On the other side of the coin, Tilda Swinton plays the Mirando Corporation’s twin CEOs, whose only commonality seem to be their absolute insanity. Where twin Lucy is quirky and erratic, sister Nancy is cold and calculating. Both are capable of terrible things, though they both cope with vastly different approaches. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal plays the part of an utterly unhinged zoologist to perfection, the likes of which I can’t recall having ever seen him play (to be fair, not that I’m a buff when it comes to his filmography). Swinton and Gyllenhaal’s combined villainy almost seems campy until the end of the second act, in which they truly represent the unspeakable evil they stand for.

Much more interesting and dynamic, however, are the members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which include the likes of Paul Dano (‘War and Peace’), Steven Yeun (‘The Walking Dead’), Lily Collins (‘To The Bone,’ ‘The Last Tycoon’), Devon Bostick (‘The 100’) and Daniel Henshall (‘The Babadook’). They are masked the first time you meet them, seeming more like foolhardy extreme activists, but when the masks come off, they present as much more complex than what you may give them credit for. They’re easy to root for, but even they have their own agenda when it comes to Okja, forcing Mija to face off against not just the Mirando Corporation, but the ALF as well.

That being said, there isn’t much backstory afforded to the ALF or Mirando, though Bong still manages to ground each of them in small but uniquely significant ways. Dano and Yeun are absolute scene stealers — though the story is still very much Mija’s to tell, something even their characters seem to respect.

‘Okja’ is powerful, touching and, most of all, universal. It hits so many of the right notes, from the adorable CGI pig to the outstanding performances laid out by an extraordinary cast. Its imagery and messages stay with you as they’re meant to, and the ending is one of hope and a little uncertainty, something we’re all a little familiar with these days. Just be sure to keep watching after the credits — while it doesn’t necessarily tie everything up in a nice, neat bow, there’s that quiet, subtle nudge of hope. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Featured image courtesy of Netflix.

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