Before we get into Okja we need to dive into a kaleidoscope-style flashback with emotional harp strings to emphasise the effect.
Back in the 90’s I was a fairly lonely child – the only son of working parents. When my parents realised that I often felt forlorn for not having any sibling to play with at home, they decided to get me a pet. Under any normal circumstances I would have received a dog or a cat. But because my parents, much like me, are non-mainstream renegades they decided to get me something completely ridiculous – a little baby chick.
We named the chick Tilu after Aamir Khan in Andaz Apna Apna. Much like the character in the film, Tilu constantly craved attention from us, and went bonkers every time he saw food.
I became very fond of Tilu, and even though some kids at school made fun of me for having a ‘kombdi’ at home, I cared for him as a family member. Every time I did my homework Tilu would be there chirping happily around the books, pecking at them. At night Tilu would cozy up against my neck to sleep, his soft feathers nuzzling against me. I couldn’t be happier.
A few months pass and one day I come back home from school to see Tilu missing. When I ask my parents they tell me Tilu had grown wings and had flown out the balcony. I felt a wave of sadness, of abandonment – I felt disillusionment at the fact that someone so close to me could just fly away without informing me and never come back.
A year later I get to know that chickens, despite having wings couldn’t fly. I then discover that my parents gave away Tilu to the housemaid. I then realise that people who take away chickens don’t take them away as pets – they take them away for dinner. After experiencing a series of angry and helpless shockwaves I felt as if everything I knew about the world was a lie. I hated my parents because that was the only emotional reaction a nine year old could process in that situation. I never said anything to them though, and to date they don’t know that I knew.
After all these years, Okja brought back memories of Tilu and his fate. In the film the young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has grown up with a pet giant pig who doubles as a dumb but lovable surrogate sibling. The pig, named Okja, at the behest of Mija’s father is one day taken away by a group of mysterious people – with clear intentions to turn the animal into delicious packaged bacon.
Director Bong Joon Ho, having directed a series of masterpieces already, returns to the realm of The Host in Okja. Much like that film, Okja is an often hilarious, charming, sometimes shocking and emotionally charged adventure that doubles as social commentary on the brutal industrialisation of the world. To find Okja Mija makes her way from her secluded home atop a hill to the urban decay of the capital Seoul, chancing upon a ruthless meat producing organization. The contrast between the two worlds is stunning – reminiscent of some of the scenes in Ron Fricke’s Baraka.
Joon Ho mixes elements of Spielberg’s ET and his own satirical flair into the story, leading to fascinating shifts in tone throughout the film as we meet the crazy characters. There’s Jake Gyllenhaal as a moronic reality TV celeb placed as puppet to sway people’s bias (sounds familiar?), Tilda Swinton as the increasingly nervous head of the meat producing company who is happy to lie to people to sell her products.
The highlight of the film is a gang of animal rights activists whose modus operandi is to act without causing harm to other humans – a coda which leads to a side splitting running gag where they intimidate people but apologize for their actions. They are essentially Gau Rakshaks without the state sponsored mindless lynch mob terrorist proclivities.
The point being – everything in Okja is real, and relevant.
The consumption of beef has become a worldwide cause for concern – not just because eating beef is bad for the environment, but also because of the way animals are handled in meat processing plants. Most of us are happy to look the other way when told about how chickens and other meat sources are treated before they make their way to our dinner plates.
We are content to pour gravy and shove chunks of juicy delicious meat down our throats and we’re more than happy to pay the middle man – the restaurant – to do all the dirty work to satiate our piggish indulgences. How have we as a species strayed away from our place in nature, and under the garb of civilization become so clinically barbarous.
Okja doesn’t have all the answers to these questions, and Joon Ho’s lack of resolutions within the story reflects the fact that there may never be solutions to these issues. We’re on a free fall as a species and whatever measure we take will only slow our eventual downfall. Children will keep being lied to, Tilu will keep getting his neck snapped and ending up in the pressure cooker, and we’ll keep turning the other cheek because it benefits us and everyone around us.
Exploring such complex dynamics needed a strong filmmaking voice and Joon ho, with his incredible flair for both intimate character drama and big screen thrills almost effortlessly succeeds. Despite a moderate budget the special effects are astonishing. Okja is a fully fleshed out character, and the emotional effect the giant CGI pig has on the audience is akin to Caesar in the new Apes trilogy.
A big factor that made all this possible was Netflix and their willingness to give the auteur creative freedom to go the extra mile – I doubt that the film would have been as effective were it made in the confines of a regular Hollywood studio. Even Miramax – once known as the savior of auteurs and indie cinema, tried to sabotage the release of Joon Ho’s previous film Snowpiercer.
With this investment Netflix has not only cemented their place as the future of cinema, but also have sounded warning signs to the industry. It’s clear that in the future even if theaters fall and film festivals become irrelevant, Netflix is playing the long game and they’re here to stay.
They way I discovered the works of Bong Joon Ho on DVDs and torrents, as the years go by more and more people are going to watch films on a tablet at home. It’s always nice, however, to get a chance to see any film on the big screen. Much like the overall argument in the film, if enough people in the industry get together, we could still forge a situation that is the best of both worlds and benefits everyone.
If only we were better at getting together at building things than tearing them down.