Okja is a strange little film, and frequently difficult to watch, but ultimately it was made with good intentions and superb craftsmanship. It is part of the “Netflix Original” lineup, and like most of their creative endeavors, it is well-made and catered to an audience that generally demands higher quality and better story-telling. Much like HBO did in the 1990’s, Netflix has now centered its marketing strategy around original programming with high production values, superior writing, and A-List stars. Okja is one of the most thought-provoking, and possibly one of the best, among Netflix’s new entries.
Okja, directed by Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), opens on a sensationalized press conference for the fictional Mirando Corporation. Lucy Miranda (Tilda Swinton), is the new CEO of the company, having replaced her grandfather, who was rather unpopular. At the press conference, Lucy announces, with almost cartoonish zeal, the production of a new kind of “superpig” that she promises will be much larger, more delicious, and more cost-effective to raise than regular pigs. The Mirando Corporation will produce 26 superpigs, which will be sent to locations across the world to be raised by local farmers. In ten years time, the best superpig will be crowned and revealed to the world.
Fast forward ten years, and we are introduced to Mija, a precocious and strong-willed girl who lives in the remote South Korean mountains with her grandfather and their superpig, Okja. Okja is enormous, but this doesn’t stop her from playing with Mija and even taking naps with her. In the 10 years they’ve spent together, Mija has developed a strong connection with Okja, who she sees as her pet and best friend. Mija insists that her grandfather offer the Mirando Corporation a lump sum to buy Okja, which he promises to do. A spokesperson for the Mirando Corporation and television zoologist, Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), shows up and selects Okja as the best superpig. While Dr. Wilcox and his team prepare Okja to be taken to New York City, Mija’s grandfather takes Mija to visit her parents’ graves, only to reveal that he was unsuccessful in purchasing Okja’s freedom, and that he had no choice but to let the Mirando Corporation take her. Naturally, Mija is heartbroken, and decides to follow the truck holding Okja to Seoul. With the help of the Animal Liberation Front, a small group of passionate animal activists who want to save Okja and expose the cruelty of the Mirando Corporation, Mija pursues Okja to the United States in the hope of bringing her back home.
Okja is not the first story of its kind, at least not when you look at the themes and general story arc: a child going to great lengths to rescue a pet from a person or people who wish to do the pet harm (101 Dalmatians, Beethoven, Air Bud, and the list goes on). While the aforementioned films are generally geared toward children, Okja is much more adult-themed, instead focusing on the cruelty of factory-farming. The filmmakers make no efforts to hide their intentions, and thus Okja is a very successful, albeit difficult-to-watch animal rights film.
When looking at Okja as a whole, it hits most of the marks of a superb film: quality writing, excellent cinematography and special effects, a well-paced story, and it manages all this while being socially relevant. However, Okja falls a little short with the performances. Both Tilda Swinton (who actually plays twin sisters) and Jake Gyllenhaal come across as overly clownish. And while this seems to work at times for Swinton’s character, Gyllenhaal’s contribution to the film is lackluster to say the least. Dr. Wilcox is buffoonish to the point of being annoying, and a distraction from the more serious tones of the film. While Okja does have plenty of comedic moments, which help to soften the darker elements of the story, Gyllenhaal’s comedy falls flat on its face, and takes away from an otherwise excellent film.
The only other shortcoming in the film, which isn’t really a shortcoming so much as it is a reason that some will still clear of Okja entirely, is the refusal on the part of the filmmakers to shy away from the gut-wrenching brutality of factory-farming, and to some extent meat-eating in general. We, as a species, have become so distanced from our food, that we quickly forget how much pain and suffering goes into every hamburger or piece of bacon we consume. In this respect, Okja pulls no punches, and is therefore a difficult and incredibly depressing film to watch. There are times in the film when anyone who has ever had a pet will struggle not to cry. So, if you’re an animal lover, be warned: Okja is a very important film, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.
Okja is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Rating: ★★★★ out of 5