Ever wondered what it would be like to live in the ghost quiet mountains in South Korea surrounded by vibrant, luscious green landscapes with only your giant genetically modified pet pig and grandpa for company? No? Well, fear not because director and screenwriter Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer; Mother) has got you covered with his latest evocative feature film, Okja.
In this funny, heart-warming and brutally honest film, the impasse between the food industry and animal activism is brought front and centre as the young and outspoken Mija's family and idyllic way of living is under threat by the imposing American corporation, Mirando headed by heir-presumptive Lucy Mirando, who boasts a supposedly ethical and sustainable stance on agriculture with the help of the overly-enthusiastic animal lover and TV presenter Dr Johnny Wilcox.
Raw and compelling, An Seo Hyun’s (Dream High; The Housemaid) portrayal of Mija brings to the film a sincere resilience rooted in this child-like, unshakeable belief in the impossible as she confronts Lucy Mirando’s vision of a carnivorous future rid of world hunger. As the theatrical Lucy, Tilda Swinton (The Grand Budapest Hotel; Snowpiercer) handles the role of the seemingly naive granddaughter of the infamous former CEO Mr Mirando with impressive ease, seamlessly sliding from one guileless extreme to the a more sinister other in the same breath. Squirming under her thumb is the face of Mirando, Dr Johnny Wilcox. Jake Gyllenhaal’s (Nocturnal Animals; Nightcrawler) memorable take on the seasoned TV personality punctuates his internal conflict with the allure of money and his love for animals with extravagant mannerisms and an excellent falsetto. And if you’re of the opinion that Babe’s place as the cutest anthropomorphised pig in cinematic history could never be rivalled then think again; Okja, voiced brilliantly by Lee Jeong-eun (Mother; Oh My Ghost), is spectacular in a way that incites not only the suspension of disbelief but also a desire to learn the truth about animal breeding and livestock welfare in the food industry.
Freedom is a right all living creatures should inherently have but the world is still rife with stories of the horrific mistreatment of all kinds of animals, stories typically forced into silence in favour of more glamorous headlines. Okja does not shy away from delving into the consequences of preying on the voiceless; running an enterprise with no conscience; fighting for a cause without trust or respect; and being (and remaining) simply ignorant.
However, in amongst the thought-provoking topics Okja touches on, it expertly balances tension with humour and heart. By exploring the intricacies of language and, more broadly, expression with bold costume choices and the harmonious use of both Korean and English in showing its characters’ true desires, we are also reminded of the power of integrity when building relationships and how “translations are sacred” in bridging gaps between cultures.
In short, Okja (currently on Netflix) is bold, uplifting and victorious in challenging the value placed on a life other than one’s own in an unforgettable way.