Okja: The Pig Stays in the Picture

Can movies be made that attack the prejudices and cruelties of 95% of the human race — and be financially viable? Will the guilty party pay to see themselves raked over the coals? Are speciesist bigots so detached from their emotions and reality that they don’t even realize that they are being criticized?

In the South Korean/US 2017 release, Okja, the answer to the first two questions is: not without a lot of attempted humor, action, tokenism, cartoonish characters that undercut a serious message and a nonsensical happy ending. The answer to the last question is at the end of this article. And I actually like this film.

Okja is one of 26 super pigs created in a lab by an evil corporation and given to various farmers around the world to raise in “natural” settings. That’s why Okja is put on a remote forested South Korean mountain where there are lots of cliffs to slip off of. Okja looks like a hippopotamus but is the size of an elephant and is so “special” that she is going to be killed and eaten as environmentally “sustainable” meat. Somehow raising and killing these quasi-dinosaurs for food doesn’t have much environmental impact. The film is labeled “action-adventure” but it’s more a rapid-fire multi-leveled satire. The “willing suspension of disbelief” should be bought in the extra large size before entering the theatre.

Okja is raised by a young South Korean girl named Mija and her grandfather. For ten years this is a happy story about a girl and her 5,000 ton hog/dog and their romps through the forest, occasionally saving each other’s lives and curling up each night with nary a snort or the crushing of young girl bones.

Unfortunately, as family members are wont to do, the grandfather has been treacherously deceiving Mija all along, letting her believe that he purchased Okja as a pet. But then the evil corporation comes and takes Okja away, far away to New York City where the grand experiment of the super pigs will be unveiled to the world in a Macy’s-like parade. While still in South Korea, Mija runs down the mountain to Seoul and almost singlehandedly saves Okja — but what to our wondering eyes should appear: the Animal Liberation Front who step in with their own utilitarian plans.

The ALF, the head of the evil corporation (Tilda Swinton) and the corporation’s zany zoologist front man (Jake Gyllenhaal) are all over-the-top caricatures. It should go without saying that the computer-generated Okja — with her intelligence, quiet dignity and innocence — gives the most moving performance.

So what’s good about this fast-moving mishmash? The film’s heart is in all the right places: animal farmers and vivisectors are presented as the scum bags they are. The zoologist is a combination of the Columbus Zoo’s Jack Hanna and “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin and, as with Jack Hanna, there is a dark side: Gyllenhaal’s character is a torturing vivisector just as Jack Hanna did television commercials for Ohio trappers to defeat legislation to ban leg hold traps and also commercials to legalize mourning dove hunting. The public would laugh at Hanna and his animals on David Letterman’s show but animal activists knew him as a betrayer of animals just as Gyllenhaal’s character is. The goofiness of the ALF characters bear no resemblance to the hard-headed revolutionaries in the real ALF but there is a mini-tutorial on ALF history that isn’t half bad.

Where the film picks up emotional wallop is in the slaughterhouse where Okja is in the restraint device and   about to have the captive bolt pistol shot into her head. Mija comes face to face with her best friend, her love, about to meet a hideous unjust fate. Most moving of all is the next scene of the holding pens outside the slaughterhouse where, wordlessly, but with beautiful instrumental music playing, Okja and Mija walk away to freedom, managing to save a token piglet, next to rows of hundreds of penned, doomed, terrified proletarian pigs who struggle to stand, rise up and bang against the fences.

Killing Okja wouldn’t sell movie tickets any more than the devastating ending of Brian De Palma’s masterwork Blow Out. Mija can’t cut all the fences and let the pigs out to trample the villains, she can’t come equipped with a gun to blow away all bad guys (cuz the real-life behind-the-scenes bad guys paid $11.00 to sit in the audience and watch this) and she can’t bring the apocalypse to the slaughterhouse even though that’s what it deserves — because she has to end up back on the mountain, not locked down for 23 hours a day in one of America’s “supermax” prisons.

So Okja is spared on the word of the most evil person in the movie which makes no sense at all but it does get Okja and Mija back together — and there’s no messy scene of Mija confronting her grandfather about his treachery. A token animal is saved and the overall sickness and dysfunction goes “peacefully,” though not justly, on, in South Korea as well as Hollywood. It’s so difficult to produce great art about speciesism when film makers have to dance around the depravity of you meat eaters. You’re such a drag — a drag on the planet, a drag on art and a drag on the spiritual and emotional development of the human species.

After the film, I asked four young people if they were vegetarians. They said no. Would this movie make you think about becoming vegetarian? Three said they “didn’t know” and one said it “might.” The three who “didn’t know” acted like there was no connection at all to what they just saw and their daily eating of beings. They just sat through two hours of being told that they are intellectually and emotionally bankrupt hypocritical monsters — but they “didn’t know” about that. Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer and The Host) is now on Netflix.