Can movies be made that attack the prejudices and cruelties of 95% of the human race — and be financially successful? Are speciesist bigots so detached from their emotions and reality that they don’t even realize when they are being criticized?
In the South Korean/US 2017 release, Okja, the answer to the first question is: not without a lot of humor, action, car chases, tokenism, cartoonish characters that undercut a serious message and a nonsensical happy ending. The answer to the second 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. Okja is a pig if pigs were made of equal parts hippos, manatees, pigs, elephants and Labrador Retrievers. Okja is so inexplicably “special” that she’s promoted 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-layered satire on capitalism, speciesiem, greenwashing, “humane” meat and the imperfect resisters to the foregoing.
Okja is raised by a young girl named Mija and her grandfather on a remote forested South Korean mountain. For ten years this a happy story about a girl and her six ton hog/dog and their romps through the forest, occasionally saving each other’s lives and curling up every night with nary a snort or the crushing of young girl bones.
Unfortunately, as family members are wont to do — especially parent-less Disney-type families — the grandfather has been treacherously deceiving Mija all along, letting her believe that he purchased Okja as a pet. But then the evil corporation (Mirando=Monsanto) 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 single-handedly 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. South Korean child actress Ahn Seo-hyun does the best human acting as she convinces us that she’s in a relationship with all the pre-CGI iterations of Okja including puppeteered foam and fiberglass maquettes. (It’s telling that manatees played a big part in the physical creation of Okja as these gentle curious vegan creatures are one of the rare animals in the world that neither prey on others nor are preyed upon — except by motor boats.)
So what’s good about this fast-moving mishmash? The film’s heart is in all the right places: animal exploiters are presented as the scum bags they are. The zoologist is a Jack Hanna-like character with the appropriate 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 captive wildlife 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-history of the ALF that isn’t half bad.
Where the film picks up emotional wallop is in the slaughterhouse where Okja is in the kill box 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 end. Most moving of all is the next scene of the holding pens outside the slaughterhouse where, wordlessly at night 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 as they know they are about to be killed.
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 as an institution 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 (like some animal activists) 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. Okja is “saved’ just like every mass murdering US President “pardons” a turkey every Thanksgiving. These are the lies that humans tell themselves and each other. The myth is that humans are good and noble beings while the reality is that, toward other creatures, we’re sadistic fucking monsters. 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, morally and emotionally bankrupt hypocritical zombies — but they “didn’t know” about that. The good guys and gals help and save animals, the bad guys and gals hurt and kill animals, very simple.
Only cowardly weak-ass speciesist bigots, unwilling to give up convenience and satisfied in stewing in hypocrisy and evil, would say it’s not simple. As the late great novelist and social reformer Brigid Brophy once said, “Whenever people say, ‘We mustn’t be sentimental,’ you can take it that they are about to do something cruel. And if they add, ‘We must be realistic,’ they mean they are about to make money out of it. These slogans have a long history. After being used to justify slave traders, ruthless industrialists, and contractors who had found that the most economically ‘realistic’ method of cleaning a chimney was to force a small child to climb it, they have now been passed on, like an heirloom, to the factory farmers.” (Psychologist Richard Ryder, who coined the term “speciesism,” credits a 1965 Brophy-penned article in the Sunday Times as launching the animal rights movement in Britain.)
I’ve seen the landmark 1981 documentary, The Animals Film, instantly break through speciesist moviegoers’ conditioned ethical blindness but I don’t think Okja is going to do that, much as I wish it would. To give viewers something that they would never forget about meat eating and slaughter, capitalism and injustice — both Okja and Mija needed to die. Hearts need broken and eyes need opened. For proper meaning and gravitas, even Walt Disney knew that Bambi’s mother had to be killed by Satanic humans who rule by violence and destroy the earth. Contrariwise, if we want real, fulfilling fantasies, instead of half-assed ones like Okja, let’s show the villains getting completely vanquished — who cares if it’s true? Fake it till you make it. Atheists always make the best religious movies. Remember: art is bullshit, art is a tool — generally a pacifier — capitalism is daily war and nothing is more important than resistance and justice. Che, Marx and Ho Chi Minh were more creative than Michelangelo.
Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer and The Host), received a four minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival but was barred from winning any awards because it’s a Netflix original film. Okja is also the fourth highest-grossing film in South Korea despite a theatre boycott and only showing on 94 out of a possible 2,575 screens.