The Good: Decent CG effects, Seo-Hyun Ahn acts like a pro opposite the effects, Generally good acting
The Bad: Painfully obvious themes, Simplistic plot, Unlikable characters
The Basics: Okja painfully blurs the lines between making a statement on the condition of the meat processing industry, animal rights activism, and the perils of making a food animal into a pet.
When it comes to Netflix Original Films, there have been none that have had the press momentum prior to their release like Okja. Okja, streaming today, has one of the most acclaimed casts yet for a Netflix film - Tilda Swinton, Giancarlo Esposito, and Jake Gyllenhaal being the most recognizable to American audiences - and was originally debuted at the Cannes Film Festival where it garnered a lot of positive press. Before sitting down to Okja, all I knew about the film was that Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead was in the movie and my wife warned me that, having recently lost our beloved Siberian Husky Myah, the film might be a little depressing for me.
Okja is the latest film in a fairly recent trend of movies that try to expose the conditions under which our food is made. Unlike something like Fast Food Nation (reviewed here!), which focuses on the United States and casts a wide net over the industry, Okja tells a far more intimate story. Okja almost instantly illustrates why most of us have different animals for food than we do for pets.
Opening in 2007, in New York City, Lucy Mirando takes over the powerful multinational Mirando company. Under her leadership, the new super pig that was born and reproduced in one of her holdings is being developed for future consumption. The twenty-five super pigs are shipped to different parts of the world for a ten-year competition to see which one will grow into the largest and most delicious super pig in the world. Ten years later in Korea, Mija lives with her grandfather in the hills, spending her days running around playing with her massive super pig, Okja. With the competition rushing to a close, Mija's grandfather lies to her and tells her he has bought Okja, but when a film crew comes to their home to see Okja, the truth comes comes out and Okja is taken away.
With Okja having been abducted to Seoul before her journey to New York City for the final portion of the competition, Mija runs away from home to rescue her beloved companion. Mija makes it to the Mirando offices in Seoul just in time to see Okja being taken away by truck. Mija manages to run and jump onto the truck transporting Okja, when animal rights activists smash into the truck and Okja is freed. Okja runs through Seoul wreaking havoc before she and Mija are rescued by the Animal Liberation Front activists. The leader of the ALF, Jay, tells Mija about the truth about Mirando's laboratories and he tells her that the ALF's plan is to use Okja as a spy in Mirando's laboratories. K, however, lies to Mija and Okja is taken to New York with the spy technology needed to expose Mirando.
Okja is being hailed as a masterpiece of animal rights, with viewers lauding it for illustrating just how horribly we treat animals in the food processing industry. Okja does not actually do that with any effectiveness. Instead, it simply makes painfully explicit why most people do not raise pets for food. There is a disconnect between food and pets; most people wouldn't eat meat if they got to know their food animals in advance of their slaughter. So, while Okja is being hailed as brilliant and a masterpiece, it plays out much more like a "simple problem, simple solution." In today's society, in our modern world, if one ants to be able to enjoy a hamburger, it helps not to spend time on the killing floor of a slaughter house. It is easy enough to avoid the entire thematic conflict presented in Okja.
Okja takes the stance that using animals for food is inherently and entirely wrong. For sure, in the real world, the meat industry is problematically regulated and slaughterhouse conditions are not ideal for humans or the animals slaughtered there. The Animal Liberation Front takes an extreme view about animal rights and when Jay details the ALF agenda, it is hard to take him seriously as a reliable narrator. Okja does not satisfactorily explain how the ALF got reliable intelligence on the Mirando Corporation, so it is easy to write off Jay's claims initially as the crackpot theories of extremists.
Lucy Mirando certainly appears - in closed-door meetings - as fairly idealistic and ethical, which helps to undermine the idea that Jay is a credible narrator. Lucy is clearly being manipulated by the more corporately-inclined Dawson, but for much of the film, Lucy is not presented as an actual or credible villain.
The performances in Okja are all good. Jake Gyllenhaal is virtually unrecognizable as the Mirando media presence, Johnny Wilcox. Paul Dano, Lily Collins and Steven Yeun are all credible in their intense performances of animal rights activists. All of the animal rights activist performers are great in their reaction shots throughout Okja. Tilda Swinton is her usual wonderful self as Lucy Mirando. Swinton gives viewers something new at the film's climax where she does a spot-on Jane Lynch impersonation. Shirley Henderson seems to be playing the same type character she did on Doctor Who and Harry Potter and Seo-Hyun Ahn does fine playing a little girl in love with her pet.
The direction in Okja is good.
Unfortunately, in addition to having a simple conflict with a simple solution, Okja is riddled with continuity problems. Most significant is that during the ALF's abduction of Okja, Jay has to speak through Kay for Mija to understand. Mija does not understand English initially, so Kay translates. But much of the scene has Jay speaking without Kay translating any to Mija. In a similar fashion, the suspension of disbelief in Okja is strained beyond the breaking point when Johnny Wilcox has access to the breeding area and behind-the-scenes laboratory area of the Mirando Corporation. That's simply not a location a figurehead or public face for the company would traditionally have access to and the scene - while monstrous - stands out as troubling in an unrealistic way.
Ultimately, Okja is a new presentation of the same arguments Fast Food Nation made a decade ago, that Vegans make every day and that omnivores with a strong "ignorance is bliss" lifestyle maintain in order to enjoy their burgers, chicken nuggets, and dolphin-safe tuna. And yes, I get it, humans are terrible. But so is Okja.
For other Netflix exclusive films, please check out my reviews of:
Take The 10
True Memoirs Of An International Assassin
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
The Fundamentals Of Caring
The Ridiculous 6
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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