Thoughts on Okja
Reviewing Okja is easy. It's excellent, with flashes of stunning brilliance from actors, the director and the technical team. Director Bong Joon Ho has made a remarkable film that is moving, expertly-plotted and an unusually insightful critique of contemporary society. It has stellar performances by An Seo Hyun and Paul Dano in particular. Hyun plays a teenaged farm girl who has spent the better part of her life growing up with a "super pig" named Okja, in a remote, mountainous village outside Seoul. She encounters Dano's Jay, who heads up the militant Animal Liberation Front (ALF), when Okja is taken back to America by the meat company Mirando Corporation that officially owns Okja. Mirando Corporation is run by a frosty blonde, played by Tilda Swinton. She's a little over-the-top, but it's still a powerhouse performance (unlike Jake Gyllenhaal, who as a fading TV star is a disappointment). Mija's quest is to save Okja and to do so, she travels from her village to Seoul, New York City and New Jersey. This gives cinematographer Darius Khondji a variety of scenes, colour palettes and visual tones to play with, which he does to exquisite effect. Okja's visual effects team, led by Erik-Jan de Boer, have done a magnificent job with the imagined animal whose inspiration, believe it or not, is a beagle.
If you've seen Okja, then you know that its biggest achievement is not that just how well-made it is, but how it is made thought provoking by the storytelling. This is why writing about how much Okja explores in two hours is much more difficult than reviewing the film. Okja is one of those rare films that actually responds to your own life experiences, which is why, for instance, my friend who has been an animal activist and worked with PETA, was struck by the sensitive but unforgiving portrayal of the animal rights' movement in the film.
I wanted to figure out a less haphazard way of writing about the ideas contained in Okja, but that's clearly not going to happen. So here's a random set of disconnected paragraphs and points, which aren't comprehensive but well, they're here.
1. There are repeated references and acknowledgements by Lucy Mirando that her father did terrible things and was a "monster", but no one actually specifies what he did. By the time we reach the film's last act, however, that history isn't too hard to guess. The 'super pigs' are slaughtered in a massive factory that is quite obviously reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps. From the barbed wire to the experiments that are conducted on the super pigs, and the heartbreaking way the piglet is smuggled out, the antecedent to Mirando's super pig experiment is obvious. Suddenly, Lucy Mirando's flaxen hair, the metallic braces that literally cage her teeth until it's time to bare them — it all becomes that much more chilling.
2. Maybe I'm just heartless, but I didn't have any trouble eating pork ramen after watching Okja. The film is not about vegetarianism. It's about cruelty. Mija eats chickens, Okja helps her catch fish; at the end of the film, we see chickens pottering around the yard. These are all to be consumed. The point is that you can eat meat without treating animals the way Mirando Corporation does. What Mirando does isn't about the act of eating, but the way it reduces the animals to chunks of flesh, dismissing their feelings and the fact that they are living beings. The problem isn't with being a predator. It's with greed and the cruelty that it inspires and helps justify.
3. One of the victories in the way the way the super pigs are imagined is that they're not cute in the infantile or cartoonish sense, but they are still utterly adorable. It's also emphasised that they're intelligent and empathetic in a way that is similar to humans. The visual effects team does an amazing job getting Okja's one eye to pack in an acting performance that most of us would struggle to pull off with our entire bodies. But it's interesting that while the eye does reflect Okja's thoughts and state of mind, we are shown just one eye in the emoting scenes. I'm sure some of this has to do with the logistics of fitting that enormous face into the frame. But it creates a visual that has metaphorical possibilities. It's almost as though we're shown — or we choose to see — the human side of Okja only, rather than the entire animal intelligence of this creature. We relate to Okja and don't want to eat her (see point 6) because she thinks like a human. She's Mija's friend in the way humans understand friendship. Our hearts break for the two super pigs who try to save their piglet because we associate with them human attributes and roles of mother and father.
Which begs a simple and uncomfortable question: would it be ok to kill something to which we don't relate? Loop back to that scene in which Okja and Mija are dangling precariously on that cliff edge. We're shown Okja's one eye and it seems as though she's sacrificing herself for Mija — because that's our expectation of friendship, particularly cinematic ones. It could also be Okja calculating the distances and figuring there's no danger to her if she uses her weight to swing Mija to safety. My point is, we expect human-like thinking from Okja because that is the performance that will earn our empathy. An animal thinking and reacting like an animal may not have the same impact — this is why so many of us react as negatively as we do to insects. They don't communicate expressions in a human way. That doesn't mean they don't feel or that they're not communicating. It's just a different set of processes and methods. Is our empathy incapable of reaching past differences? Do we care about Okja and the super pigs because they are human-esque? What about an animal that doesn't react with expressions that are similar or comprehensible to humans? (That's most wild animals, by the way.) Or an animal that processes facts using a different, non-human logic to which we can't relate? Would we be ok with slaughtering that creature? History suggests yes. It's the notion of difference that made ghettoisation and concentration camps possible.
4. Speaking of Okja's one eye, how spectacular is Darius Khondji's cinematography! Of course he uses colours and shadows brilliantly, but what I love about Khondji is that the visuals really do complement the storytelling. For instance, there's a fragmenting that happens when Okja and Mija leave their village and Khondji shows this visually. In the forest, we see their whole selves. Literally. Their entire bodies and full faces are seen in the frames. In Seoul, people are seen in full only when they're part of a larger collective – a crowd, a company, a traffic jam. In New York, everything and everyone is contained in boxes. Offices, windows, stages — there are boundaries everywhere, and of course Okja and Mija try to break out of them. Also, those exquisite shots in which we see half of Okja's face and half of Mija's face. They don't come together to create one face. They remain separate, incomplete and equal in that incompleteness. The way Khondji shoots Okja and Mija doesn't let us forget their connection. Mija has a bruised and eye that's almost swollen shut when she's making her way through Seoul. In New York, Okja's eyes are bloodied and she's blinded.
5. Speaking of the connection Okja and Mija share, much of the film is about their loss of innocence. Mija gets beaten up, lied to repeatedly and exploited by ALF. Okja is deceived into leaving the farm, physically hurt and sexually abused. Both suffer injuries to their eyes. Both voice their thoughts but are only partially understood. The innocence that is so precious to the film has a distinctly Biblical flavour. The film begins with Mija asleep and it ends with her sleeping again. It's almost as though the bits in which she's awake make up a terrible dream. Mija's home is something like a Garden of Eden. Mija even picks a red, apple-like fruit and there's a disapproving patriarch in her grandfather. And of course outside this lush little enclosure is a big, bad world that savages Okja and Mija, stripping them of their innocence and teaching them of the ways of mortal, human life.
6. Let's talk about ALF for a moment. As Bijal had told me before I saw the film, Okja is remarkably balanced when it comes to animal activism, acknowledging both its self-serving side as well as its zeal. ALF initially seem to be goofballs. They've got all sorts of idealism and so little pragmatism, it seems. But quickly, the absurdity is seen alongside its selfishness — K's barely pinpricked with guilt when he deceives both Mija and his comrades. It's a scene that also tackles the responsibility of a translator and what's possible when you share the connection of a language. Okja is filled with moments like this that work at multiple levels and will resonate with different people, differently. It's keenly aware and conscious of difference as a concept and respects it.
For me, the most difficult scene to watch in Okja is the one in which ALF is sitting in a little room, watching Okja the super pig get raped. The audience isn't shown Okja being violated. We only hear the screams. This was the scene in which Okja's feminine gender felt impressed upon me. It's a brutal scene that's all the more sickening because you don't see the actual violence. You only hear and feel its effects. There's a scene that follows soon after in which chunks of flesh are extracted from Okja and instead of the blood and mess, what we're shown are neat, worm-like strands of pristine meat that testers taste and approve. It's horrific. A close second was the scene at the parade when I realised why Jay had told Mija that whatever happens, she shouldn't turn around and look back. Not because she needs to run as fast as she can, but because ALF is playing the footage that shows Okja being raped.
ALF knew what they were sending Okja to be brutalised like this. That's their selfishness. Their love for animals isn't above exposing and subjecting the animal to unspeakable horrors in order to get the evidence/ publicity they want. At the same time, aside from Jay and his gang, there's no one that Mija and Okja can turn to for help. No one else will offer themselves up as Jay does at the end. No one else will risk a resistance.
7. Finally, Okja suggests the price that we pay for progress and urbanity is harmony. Harmony is only possible when we're beyond the borders of what humans have created. The world in which Okja and Mija, animal and human, can co-exist is a dream that is cut off from reality, which is embodied by the city. The city is modern, it's a site of exploitation, it's where everyone is constantly awake, day or night. Our progress is hinged upon cruelty to others. Knowledge and development come with costs. The world of the city stands completely opposed to what Okja and Mija stand for, which is a sense of unwavering goodness. Even when they don't want to cause any disruption, just the fact that they're together leads to chaos (think of the chase scene in the subway in Seoul). In an intriguing twist, it's Okja who has a small blip of succumbing to the reality of the city when she, in her traumatised state, bites Mija. Usually, in the animal-human stories, humans are the ones who unwittingly lash out at their animal partners but here, Mija performs the role that animals usually do in these tales. Humans are generally the ones who are prone to cruelty, but Okja, a human creation, is the one who draws Mija's blood. Mija, nature's own (it can't be a coincidence that no human parent is associated with her. Even her parents' graves are mounds of earth and grass, making her almost literally a child of nature), doesn't lash out even once. Her goodness and loyalty to Okja are unwavering.
Mija's home is primitive. The television barely works, there isn't a car, the amenities are few. It's limited in its abilities and possibilities. There's no internet, no English, no knowledge of the world beyond. Mija's Eden is an impossible, unreal place, but you need that unreality to make the reality of the city bearable. Lucy Mirando, the television star, they all try to create little oases of unreality to deal with the real world, but theirs are simultaneously too artificial and too aware of their contexts. Their minds are so deeply rooted in reality that they can't escape it. Yet it's important to be able to escape. Mija's world is out of time, out of sync and unreal. It's fantasy in the purest sense. That's the dream world that the film presents. Without this beautiful unreality, the real isn't as horrifying or as heartbreaking. A properly escapist, naive, fantastical world can act as an antidote to what the real world does to people. Mija's awareness of everything that is wrong in the cities is acute because she is from this unreality where innocence and greenery are in abundance. Without this place that is a flight of the imagination, the cruelty of the real world becomes normalised.
So don't diss escapist fantasies. They could be what's keeping us human in an age of violence and apathy.