Bong Joon Ho is a South Korean filmmaker with seven films now, the most recent being 2019’s Parasite, the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the first unanimous decision by the jury in several years. Bong’s films are often described as black comedies or fables, for their “metaphorical” qualities. The New York Times says Bong “combines showmanship with social awareness in a way that re-energizes the faded but nonetheless durable democratic promise of movies,” then gets twisted up in the riddle of whether he makes popular entertainments with artistic merit, or artistic films that are entertaining to the masses.
I had never seen one of his films and, intending to become a completist eventually, decided to start with one of the two available on Netflix: Okja, from 2017. (The other there is Snowpiercer, from 2013.)
To say that Okja is like Charlotte’s Web is just the sort of twisted thing we find ourselves saying in today’s twisted times. It is true that Okja is also about a young girl who has raised a sentient pig and hopes to save it from slaughter. But the rest of the comparison is so wildly irrelevant that it is like saying Walter White was a science educator like Linus Pauling.
The girl in the film is Mija (played by the excellent Ahn Seo-hyun), and she and her elderly grandfather live in lovely but isolated mountains in South Korea. They have raised Okja, one of 26 genetically-modified “super-piglets” distributed to farmers around the world by an evil corporation, who is now 10 years old and the size of a hippo. (Okja and her kind are CGI’d, the one visually fantastic element.) Okja is at least as smart and linguistic as Koko the gorilla, and as valorous as Indiana Jones, at one point saving Mija in a literal cliffhanger, nearly at the cost of her own life.
Now the head of that evil corporation (alternating twins, both played by Tilda Swinton) calls back all the grown super-pigs for testing, breeding, and slaughter, and that includes Okja. Mija tries to get her back, at times aided by a flash-mobbing “Animal Liberation Front (ALF).” As the film reaches its halfway point, it seems to feel its burden of social relevance and improbable plot-turns (how will Mija, raised in poverty, ever get to the US to find Okja, let alone get the giant animal back to Korea?), and turns to slapstick. In a chase scene, Mija pats Okja’s rump until Okja begins to twirl her tail and fling poo, the way hippos do, at a bad guy, while John Denver croons on the soundtrack.
“He’s having a shitty day!” an ALF warrior crows.
“And it’s eco-friendly!” another says.
When the bad guy finally stops running after their truck, he calls someone on his phone. Tilda Swinton? No, his partner, evidently: “Hey, Baby, it’s me. What kind of body wash do we have?”
I can think of at least three film-loving friends I could never sit through those scenes with, because they would trash my living room in excited dissatisfaction.
Then the film turns quite dark. Not despite the almost-cute pig, the brave little girl, the physical gags, and the kitschy, Steve Irwin-style wildlife “expert” (played by a screaming Jake Gyllenhaal in short-shorts). It turns dark because of them, with Bong using those devices from happy-ending films to get at us.
Suffice it to say that in the second half we are shown the abuses of Blackrock-style security contractors, vivisections turned focus-group tastings, feedlot horrors, slaughterhouse horrors, and a long scene reminiscent of the concentration camps, with a pig couple pushing their baby out through the fence for strangers to save. If you have ever had that urge to become vegetarian after seeing or reading something about meat production, you will definitely feel it again.
Little is resolved by the end of the film. The cruelty, technological irresponsibility, and corporate greed will continue, we understand, even if we are not watching them. Yet Bong ends with a quiet, bucolic scene of several creatures, including Mija and her grandfather, crunching vegetables together. Should we be at peace because the protagonists are at peace? Not so fast. Bong would rather we escape from his film disturbed, which is, come to think of it, like Charlotte’s Web too.