This movie is about a girl, Mija, who loves a giant genetically-modified food-pig (named Okja). The super-pig gets taken to NYC (from Korea), and Mija goes there to bring it back. She keeps chasing the pig and getting hurt in extreme ways, but she never gives up. Eventually she buys the pig back and they go home; that’s the movie.
The movie’s evil-agribusiness-mega-corp antagonist, who made/own the pig, is a thin Monsanto parody, fronted by Tilda, again here in the role of competing twins. The twins (in one scene with matching colored cigarettes that they each take one drag of, then throw away) care to use the girl for company image purposes, and to kill the pig for meat, respectively. Paul Dano plays a mod ALF cell leader, with the conversational affect of a startup CEO ripping a TED talk; he wants the girl to know that it’s his noble mission to save the pig (en route to “exposing” the evils of agribusiness GMO meat murder). Jake Gyllenhaal plays the current ad man for Monsanto; he wants the girl to know he wants to keep his job.
None of these other characters, their henchmen, or their plots matter or even intersect much. The feeling to me was that Tilda, Gyllenhaal, and Dano were grafted onto this movie from three other entirely different movies; incredibly, this also seemed intentional, and I found it effective. This side stuff gives the movie an irl feeling I rarely feel in movies: That big forces are moving around visibly and contiguously to what you’re working on, and they all have their own plots, main characters, and aesthetics, and they ultimately have nothing to do with and don’t care about you. I’m comfortable giving Bong (writer/director) the props and credit here: This quality of “the personal” (“give me back my pig”) occurring within the broader frame of the “monumental” (“evil agribusiness food nightmare”) feels characteristic of his writing, and I think it’s part of what makes his good movies good.
The movie’s most interesting complications are kinda in the background. The ethical issues (and what it calls “paranoia”) around GMO foods and global food justice/sustainability are less in focus than the somewhat more direct problems around killing and eating an animal, but they’re here. Is Monsanto providing a Nobel Prize-level service by creating a sustainable meat source? Or are they perpetrating an atrocity, by executing what the movie shows to be intelligent beings for food? This Q is unresolved – it’s a movie about a girl who wants her pig back, and that’s it.
I don’t really like hero-narratives where a determined child shows up to smash an “evil corporate”-form primarily via their individual tactical wiliness and athleticism (cf. The Hunger Games, Star Wars kinda except Rogue One (2016), etc.), and though Mija is wily and athletic, I love that that’s not what this movie is. Those kinds of stories aren’t useful for understanding (or even visualizing) modern individual powerlessness, or individual complicity within the “evil corporate”-forms of our time – they’re always abt people responsibly destroying those forms from outside of them. That option doesn’t really exist irl, where change is rarely cataclysmically realized, and individual contributions are typically anonymous.
I loved seeing individual irl-like powerlessness and smallness presented in a non-ironic and non-frustrated way here. Mija gets her pig back, literally just by interacting directly with the terms of its capture (i.e., by buying it for a fair price): Great. The girl can’t do anything (and maybe doesn’t even care) about the corporate meat farm’s hellscape slaughter yard, but anyway she gets what she wants, so she’s free to move on: Hmm, that’s sorta like me.
I eat meat, and while I understand the vectors on which that’s fucked, I don’t believe the responsibility for what I eat can reasonably be said to lie with me, or that to the extent to which it may, that my share of that responsibility “matters.” Similarly, it’s not Mija’s job to end the execution of intelligent super-pigs generally (and as the movie makes clear, it’s not Paul Dano’s job either): It’s Monsanto’s. I like that the movie is unblinking about the fact that Monsanto doesn’t care about this ethical problem at all, and is basically impervious to the ALF’s attacks.
(“So what does that mean?” you might ask, “Are you saying that if I vote, and call my senators, it’s still nowhere near enough, and that I would need to radically give over my life to some cause, or like run for office or something, in order to individually make a real impact, OR I’d have to somehow come to terms with my own individual powerlessness, and fundamental interchangeability with other people, as a person who basically lives a comfortable life, buttressed by complicity with the multifarious self-serving violences of capitalism?”
I’ll leave that one open! But I will say that googling, I saw at least one inevitable article like “my partner is vegan after watching okja,” which I def didn’t read, but to which I’d suggest that the partner not only missed the point, but (willy wonka meme vox) tell me again about how your uncoordinated-private-individual-opting-out ever matters? Further riff here about Amazon buying Whole Foods in another movie review maybe, but uhhh, where was I here? …)
From my view Tilda is wrong to say that people don’t care abt GMOs if the food is cheap & convenient enough; the food being cheap & convenient might just matter more in her consumer case. It seems important to try to establish for oneself where this rationale breaks down, and to try to push back in cases where it seems like common understanding or behavior could actually be shifted. (Sorry but) Imagine a “what a cast” Netflix movie that like, critiques the ethics of a vampiric convenience service like Seamless, or the community-resources-waste of something like Kickstarter.
– Here’s a video I like of an automated lamb deboning room in a slaughterhouse (it’s “graphic” but imo no more so than preparing a chicken); see especially the robot arm at like 1:30. Not sure why the slaughterhouse in the movie looked like something outta like, Saw.
– Okja contains a reminder of the scene in Permanent Midnight (1998) where Zoolander smokes crack (to Prodigy) and jumps against the plate glass window
– Other pig movies that spring to mind are Babe/Babe Pig In City, Charlotte’s Weeb, Gordy, Willow (see feature image; “You’re……. pigs!“), Beast of Southern Wild
– I watched this movie because The Host (2006) rules, and because Jeff told me to check it out. Thanks Jeff!
– Bela sent me a snippet from the Evgenia Markon Yaroslavskaya memoir she’s translating from the Russian… this contextless snippet feels relevant: “even in self-sacrifice, a person is still doing it for themselves, and feels satisfied with the knowledge of their own heroism”