Okja. Meh.


I watched the much-promoted Okja last night, the new Netflix movie by Bong Joon-ho. It’s mostly harmless, but not very good. It has problems.

  • The story goes nowhere. Girl raises super-pig on her farm in South Korea for Evil Agri-Corp, Evil Agri-Corp takes it away, girl goes on quest to recover her super-pig. I won’t say how it ends, but let’s just say there are no surprises.

  • The super-pig, Okja, is a CGI pig/hippo hybrid carefully designed for maximum cuteness. It does not make any sense ecologically or physiologically. It’s a huge herbivore, but it only rarely eats. It’s touted as ecologicaly super-efficient, but how that would work isn’t explained.

  • The Animal Liberation Front are the good guys. No. ALF may have admirable goals, but their tactics are dishonest and destructive. They are terrorists and vandals. They are portrayed here as gentle people dedicated to not harming people or animals.

  • The message is incoherent. Don’t kill super-pigs, they’re adorable and intelligent! GMOs are bad! But Okja is a GMO, even though Evil Agri-Corp is trying hard to hide that fact, and the South Korean family has no problem eating fish and chicken. They show how horrible it is to slaughter super-pigs, but hey, that’s not a chicken — it’s a bowl of chicken stew.

  • There are a few scenes in a super-pig slaughterhouse. It is the cleanest, most humane slaughterhouse I’ve ever seen; almost no blood, and the super-pigs just roll over dead when hit with a bolt-gun. It’s so antiseptic and swift, and the animals are sliced apart into bits so neatly, it had me thinking butchery was far tidier than I expected. I don’t think that’s the intended message. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle this ain’t.
    Maybe the slaughter of CGI animals is just nicer.

  • Tilda Swinton, as the CEO of Evil Agri-Corp, was too ridiculously over-the-top. I think it’s a good idea to restrain and regulate agri-business’s excesses, but it doesn’t help to portray them as cartoons. Although, if the NRA is any example, maybe they are all villainous psychopaths.

  • The economics make no sense. Evil Agri-Corp has engineered these meat animals to save their business, and first is going to put everything on hiatus for ten years while 26 super-piglets are individually raised on small farms scattered around the world. Why? This is PR? And then that PR collapses abruptly (thanks to ALF), but there are hundreds and hundreds of super-pigs at a slaughterhouse in New Jersey. I really don’t get it.

  • There are several chase scenes. Apparently, little girls and 6-ton animals can barrel through city streets, subways, and crowded stores and no one gets hurt. It’s always a kind of fortuitous chaos where girl and beast conveniently find each other in New York and Seoul, and then harmlessly charge through pedestrians and cars.

  • At the end, I’m just left with questions. Are GMOs bad, or do they create cute animals? Is eating animals bad, or only the ones that are cute? Agri-business is bad, or just the ones run by ineffectual psychotic twins? I think I wasn’t supposed to think, but instead to just enjoy adorable friendly CGI hippo-pig frolicking with tween girl.

Maybe you’ll enjoy it if you like sanitized videos of fake animals. I think it dodged all the issues.

Comments

  1. Larry says

    Super Pig!
    Super Pig!
    Does whatever a Super pig does!
    Can he swing from a web?
    No he can’t
    He’s a pig
    Lookout!
    He is the Super pig!!

  2. microraptor says

    Rather than being a super-cute critter, a pig-hippo hybrid ought to be a nigh-unstoppable rampaging monster.

  3. Owlmirror says

    The super-pig, Okja, is a CGI pig/hippo hybrid carefully designed for maximum cuteness. It does not make any sense ecologically or physiologically. It’s a huge herbivore, but it only rarely eats. It’s touted as ecologicaly super-efficient, but how that would work isn’t explained.

    They no doubt have the unicorn genome for metabolism (which has the side effect of enhancing charisma, of course): they mostly eat sunbeams and poop rainbows.

  4. jerthebarbarian says

    Well, see, GMO agriculture is bad because it makes frankenstein crops that can potentially destroy all life. But GMO critters are good because they are super-cute and when you befriend them you can teach them to fight other GMO critters in battle. But it’s okay because they really like fighting and when they get knocked out you can put them in your Pokeball and let them sleep. And they’re so cute!

    I feel like pop culture around genetic modification is a land of super weird contradictions.

  5. says

    Is this a kid’s movie? From the description it sounds like it was meant to be. Slaughter-house scenes aside, but not everyone is as squeamish as American audiences. How is it being promoted?

  6. Richard Smith says

    Maybe Okja could befriend a very clever goat that was genetically modified to produce spider silk in her milk. The goat does her best to spell out messages praising Okja, but it doesn’t work very well because, while her milk contains spider silk, her udders aren’t spinnerets. Still, the attempt attracts attention, and the goat is recognized for her intelligence, and taken away for further study. At just about the last minute, she learns to communicate just enough to save her new friend, Okja.

    Just have to think of a name for the goat. Charlene? Cheryl? Lottie?

    (It was a really good story, to be sure, but how did a spider spelling out compliments about a pig result in people marvelling about the pig, and not the spider? Or was White making a possible statement there?)

  7. weylguy says

    Myers’ review of Okja reminds me a bit of Monty Python’s Mister Neutron, the Most Dangerous Man in the World (he is, you know).

  8. vucodlak says

    @ microraptor, 2 & 3

    That’s more or less the plot of Razorback (1984), in which a giant wild boar terrorizes the Australian outback. It plows through houses like they’re made out of paper, eats children and meddling USian journalists, and generally makes a nuisance of itself.

    The movie even has an evil corporation run by siblings who are after the monster pig (to turn it into pet food, if I remember correctly). No CGI, of course. Just good (for certain values of “good”) old-fashioned practical effects.

  9. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    they mostly eat sunbeams and poop rainbows.

    Considering what hippos do with their poop, that would be extra awesome.

  10. microraptor says

    vucodlak @10:

    Actually, the monster boar puppets they used for that movie were pretty terrifying. I miss the 80s when movies still used practical effects for their monsters.

  11. josgibbons says

    NelC

    It’s definitely not child-friendly (or promoted as such) because of numerous uses of the F-word, including quite early in its trailer… which is weird, because if it weren’t for the profanity it probably would be suitable for children.

  12. says

    Longtime British lurker taking the opportunity to disagree with PZ on something that doesn’t make me an awful human being.

    1. The story – innocent child goes on a quest that holds up a candle to the bad stuff in the world is not a bad story is it? Especially as that child is female and non-European. Definately positive story telling for my daughters. It is a movie about attitudes and not a sci-fi vision of the future.

    2. Super-pig. It’s the word super after which we the audience are not allowed to question the science. Do you question Superman? OK I know you do.

    3. The ALF are the first to get to the meat (intended) of the movie. The ALF in this movie have admirable goals, are dishonest, violent (miss you Glenn), are vandals in the old school Grafitti sense, and are labelled terrorists. That they have identifiable Reservoir Dogs-esque names and use umbrellas defensibly, this is all done with full self awareness. The no harm credo is repeatedly referenced.

    4. The message isn’t incoherent. I eat meat. Most days. Without a second thought. Often not great meat. Meat that is probably killing me. Which I can get from at least 5 shops within a short walk of my house. And to do that millions of animals are processed everyday, animals we don’t care about. If we cared about them we wouldn’t slaughter them. I like cats. I care about cats. I don’t eat cats. All animals are cute if someone thinks they are. There’s a Denis Leary standup routine in there somewhere. Is this the way we want to live? Good question for a movie to ask.

    5. There was defintely blood in the slaughter house. Wanting more blood is a bit odd. The slaughterhouse is sanitised but the laboratory is a hellhole. This is probably a theme or something.

    6. Super pigs don’t exist there can’t be an economic model. There can be a photograph of a little girl 10 years ago with her pet superpig which can stop the a trigger being pulled at the exact right moment though. That’s OK.

    7. The guy crushed by Okja and the wall on the way to the subway did not get up. Mija did apologise though.

    8. Okja covers our attitude to food, meat, animals, big unethical business, big ethical business, population, expoitation of the planet and does so in an accessible non-judgemental way. For a movie to be genuinely progressive it doesn’t have to be depressingly realistic. I’m still not letting my children watch it in case they decide to become vegetarian – meal times are tricky enough but if they give up chicken we’re screwed.

    I’d just like to say I really like this blog. It’s been a journey since America first teetered on the brink of Theocracy, not always a good journey, but an enlightening one. I like to think that all the bad things have to happen not for a reason, but so we can all sit back after a but agree not to do them again. Unfortunately history punches me in the face most mornings.

  13. KG says

    Is Evil Agri-Corp actually called “Evil Agri-Corp”? That would show a certain level of self-awareness on the part of the movie-makers, and I can actually imagine a fad for corporations giving themselves such names!

  14. secondtofirstworld says

    I watched the movie a few days ago, and just like Snowpiercer (also featuring Swinton) it’s a mostly English language movie despite the fact that it’s a Korean movie with themes familiar to Korean audiences and those who watch a lot of Far Eastern movies (as one does).

    With that in mind, your first point. The girl lives in the countryside with her beloved animal until it’s taken away to be paraded. The following will be a mental image you might not scrub: despite banning the consumption of dog meat shortly before the Seoul Olympics, Koreans still eat dog. There’s a statistical possibility, that in the world’s most viewed music video, at least 2 people dancing with Psy eat dog as soup or stew.

    Your 3rd point. Since they spoke Korean, a language I can’t learn despite my best efforts (though it should be easy in theory, it’s similar to my own), so I watched it with subs and the translator was kind enough to point to additional information on how the ALF and the ELF are terrorists, denouncing science too, because it helps human advance into the destruction of nature. Besides, Paul Dano almost did to Yeun what Negan did to Glenn, so there goes the no violence credo.

    Your 4th point. Mija relinquishes her most precious item to buy off only Okja and her piglet, so it’s about bond to one animal, not exclusively the horrors of eating meat. While the big bad is obviously not Monsanto but yes it totally is, the ALF and Jake Gyllenhall’s character both claim to be animal lovers, and take part in abuse.

    Your 7th point. Remember when Subway doused its buns into an addictive substance found in cigarettes so we come back repeatedly to buy them? We mostly don’t because Jared being a pedo got more covfefe. Mirando was not exclusively a meat company, they had to afford the 10 years so nobody would suspect where they come from. The others at the end were “locally sourced”. I still have to circle back to this being a Korean movie. Local companies caught in scandals do tell such outrageous tales. If you ever find the time and patience, you should watch Je-bo-ja aka Whistle Blower, a fictionalized event about the downfall of Hwang Woo Suk, and his scientific fraud about cloning and embryonic stem cell research.

    Your 8th point. I hate to be a broken record, but that’s a Korean staple, chase and fight scenes. They could hardly CGI in Mija carrying Okja on her back, which would be a tired cliché, but also not surprising. Speaking of astronomical odds, I watched Wild Target with Bill Nighy the other day. His mother in the movie was wheelchair bound, yet came up on the stairs to kill someone and had to be helped into the car, which wasn’t hers. I have only realized then, that the movie never answered how she got there and how she got up on the stairs, when it spent time explaining she had to move out as she’s immobile. So them finding each other everywhere is movie magic.

    I’ve enjoyed the movie, because they did something very good most Western-Asian co-productions can’t: deliver a story that is digestible to both audiences, and to cast famous actors on both sides. I especially praise the latter, as Korea doesn’t have many internationally recognizable actors, and this is a good step.

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