The headlines about “Okja,” Netflix’s new original movie, focus more on how it will turn your stomach than touch your heart.
“‘Okja’ Just Might Convince You to Go Vegetarian,” the Hollywood Reporter wrote, while IndieWire published the account of a slaughterhouse visit that (briefly) made director Bong Joon-ho into a vegan.
It’s true that vegetarians and vegans will probably come out of the movie feeling virtuous about their dietary choices. It’s difficult not to, when the antagonist is a meat-production corporation intent on slaughtering your protagonist.
But first and foremost, “Okja” is a story about the bond between a girl and her pet who just happens to be a mutant pig-thing destined for eventual slaughter. It’s the age-old battle of innocence and earnestness against corporate profit margins — “E.T.” with a supermarket slant.
In a world very like our own, Lucy Mirandos, played by Tilda Swinton, wants to change the world. She’s created a brand-new type of livestock, called super-pigs, and plans to ship them off to farmers all around the world, where they will live for the next ten years, grow, and eventually return to New York for a sort of pig beauty pageant. The goal, of course, is to hype Mirandos’ new line of super-pig meat products.
One of the super-pigs — the titular Okja — makes its way to Korea, and in the span of ten years grows into an occasionally flatulent, but ridiculously endearing creature, beloved by her keeper’s granddaughter.
Mija, played by Ahn Seo Hyun, carries most of the movie through her palpable bond with the CGI creature. When the Mirandos corporation inevitably repossesses Okja, Mija makes her way to Seoul, then to America, to find and recover her friend before it’s too late.
Of course, she can’t do it alone. The Animal Liberation Front, a radical group of masked do-gooders, have a plan to bring Mirandos’ plans crashing down. They just need Okja to do it. Lead by Paul Dano, who brings a mostly-subsumed rage to the cause, the ALF is intensely empathetic and well-intentioned, but thwarted by issues with communication and differing credos.
Swinton, in her second collaboration with Bong Joon-ho, brings out the tiny shades of grey in her character’s vision. Feeding the world requires slaughtering animals, true — but she’s also created a race of animals with a smaller carbon footprint than cattle or sheep. Many people who choose a vegetarian or vegan diet do so out of concern for meat production’s effect on the environment. In that line of reasoning, Mirandos’ super-pigs are actually a boon — a way to reduce that strain without also reducing meat consumption worldwide.
The moral here is more about mindless consumption than it is meat in general — after all, Mija and her grandfather consume fish and chicken, which they catch or raise themselves, and one member of the ALF who starves himself to maintain a low carbon footprint takes a well-meaning lifestyle to an unfortunate extreme.
Okja’s time under Mirandos’ thumb certainly takes a dark turn. Young children lured to the movie because of its cuddly animal heroine may be scarred by what Okja finds inside the walls of Mirandos’ meat factory.
“Okja” contains too much raw emotion to be purely satirical or to fall completely under the heading of social criticism. It succeeds as a movie because of the strength of its performances, not any infallible creed about life as an herbivore.
The movie makes us care about a CGI pig. Whether it has any lasting effect on the lives of real ones remains to be seen.