TV-MA, mostly for animal cruelty. The purpose of the movie is to criticize the meat packing industry. So you are going to get a lot of similar content to something like The Jungle. While Okja isn't as brutal as The Jungle or "Blood of the Beasts", Director Bong is already a pretty visceral director. There's also some language, which tends to be for shock value at times. And I don't think I've written about this before, but the movie also deals with the forced reproduction of animals. Finally, the movie deals with eco-terrorism. A well-deserved TV-MA.
DIRECTOR: Bong Joon Ho
About a year ago, I listened to an episode of Harmontown where Dan interviewed Director Bong's personal assistant. Dan had just watched Okja on Netflix and was fascinated. If you ever wanted me to get excited about a movie, talk about it on a podcast. I almost watched the entire modern canon of Kevin Smith because of a podcast. I know that I watched The Stanford Prison Experiment because of Harmontown. It's actually pretty weird that I didn't watch this movie before this moment. After all, one of my favorite discoveries from when I was working at the video store was The Host. Then Parasite blew my mind (Yeah, I'm one of those folks who genuinely loved Parasite.) I don't know why I sat on my hands to watch Okja...
...but I didn't like it.
I know. I know. I'm going to end up on the wrong side of history when it comes to being a vegetarian. My moral compass gets veganism. If you asked me a decade ago, I think I would have actively scoffed at you for being a vegan. Again, I never like my old self. But now, I'm very in the frame of mind for eating meat. I'm both apologizing and not apologizing. Keeping all of this in mind, I'm not opposed to the message of veganism. After all, "Blood of the Beasts" may have been one of the most traumatizing things I have ever seen. Seriously, it's the closest I have ever gotten to dropping meat forever. I knew what I was getting into. Harmon described the movie, and I'm completely paraphrasing because I haven't listened to this episode in a long time, as a complex and nuanced understanding of how the meat industry works. So I went into Okja with that expectation. The thing is, there's not all that much that is subtle about Okja, let alone nuanced. Is it a well-made film about the price of eating meat? Sure. But that doesn't mean that it is really a nuanced story that can really go beyond the superficial level that it initially posits. Honestly, Okja reminded me of an R-rated Free Willy. We've seen this movie before. A child has a pet that others don't consider a pet. An evil corporation wants to take it from said child. The child spends the majority of the film trying to free this animal from the cruel overlords.
The thing is that Director Bong actually had the opportunity to tell a much more challenging tale than what Okja really offers. The film starts off with Tilda Swinton's Lucy Mirando dropping all of this world-building stuff. Her family have always been corporate jerks, but she is working hard to 180 the family name. But she brings up something really early in those early expositional speeches. She comments on the idea that hunger still ravages the globe. Scientists have worked tirelessly to find a way to make food more available and that these super-pigs are meant to do that. Again, I'm on the wrong side of history on this argument, but that's a really good point. After all, the world is suffering food crises and poverty all the time. These super-pigs are actually good for the environment because they don't have the same toxic cow farts that is contributing to the climate crisis we're dealing with right now. Why is Lucy Mirando considered the bad guy of this piece?
Lucy Mirando comes across like a Paris Hilton styled CEO in this. I don't know if it is Director Bong's commentary about Americans, but all of the Americans in this movie come across as absurd. Okay, Giancarlo Esposito comes across only as somewhat absurd. I want to talk about that in a second. But again, Okja was meant to make me rethink what went into the food that ends up on my table. So I'm going to continue challenging the film and ask it questions about why I didn't get to that place it needed me to get to. A lot of it comes from Tilda Swinton's performance both as Lucy Mirando and as Nancy Mirando. Lucy Mirando's words say that she's genuinely trying to be the hero of her own narrative. I'm not saying that she has to come across as exclusively likable. After all, the best villains believe that they are the heroes of their own narratives, even if we have the blessing of being removed from that perspective. But there's this speech where Lucy falls off the rails. It's after Okja tears up an underground mall in Seoul. Lucy is watching this footage and she's terrified of what the result will be. She gives this great speech about her intentions and how she's trying to make the world a better place. It's supposed to be this moment that comments on how the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. But I honestly think that Tilda Swinton thinks very little of Lucy Mirando. When that speech is being delivered, it doesn't feel like Lucy really believes a darned thing about what she is saying.
And that's where some of the weaknesses really creep in. Lucy Mirando is supposed to be the sympathetic villain. She's charged with this Herculean task to turn this awful corporation into something that will save the world. But when Tilda Swinton doesn't believe what she's saying to her board of advisors, the message comes across as heavy handed. It's even worse once Nancy shows up. I don't deny that there are probably more Nancy Mirandos at the head of major conglomerates than I care to think about. But every time we get a suit as the antagonist in a film, it's always this character. It's the character who is so inhuman and emotionally stilted that they can only see what it means to make a buck. Listen, my wife already thinks that I'm the most progressive thing on two legs, so I'll just own it. I love when art takes pot shots at global conglomerates. Corporations are evil and greedy and the rich keep on getting richer. But there's straight up a line in the movie where Mija asks why they need to kill Okja, considering that the Mirando Corporation has an ungodly amount of money. Because Nancy is evil and Tilda Swinton has no sympathy for this character, Nancy replies boldly, "Because I want more money" or something like that.
For a movie that's really daring me to rethink my values, I don't really feel like there's anything that I can latch onto. It's the people who are already sympathetic to the veganism cause might find value and confirmation bias in a piece like that, but is it really going to change that many minds? Is it really going to turn that many heads? Heck, I was open to this movie as anyone could be, but my mind wasn't really shifted in any direction. Was it sad when Okja was almost killed? Oh sure. The audio footage from Okja's imprisonment is disturbing. But because the movie went so black and white with through, there's not much wiggle room for really seeing reality over this piece. Instead, we get the subtlety of They Live rather than a complex story that is going to be talked about for generations.
But there are some really cool moments. I don't know why, but I found the portrayal of the ALF fascinating. Note to the world, but especially Paul Dano: Paul Dano is incapable of being incognito. I didn't know that Paul Dano was in the movei. But the second he was on screen in his ski-mask, I knew instantly it was Paul Dano. His eyes are the emoji for ennui. It's palpable. I love that the ALF exists outside the realm of saints or sinners. Because the movie is advocating for the protection of animals, we have these characters who are taking the law into their own hands and trying to make real change when it comes to animals. But considering that their ideas are on the side of the angels / the director, their paradoxical incompetence coupled with their savvy chaos is actually pretty interesting. Mija sees the same thing we do: kids playing dress up while causing actual damage. I'm sure that if she could accomplish her goals without ever seeing a member of the ALF, she'd be pleased as punch. But that was not in the cards.
It's not that I didn't like the charm that Director Bong infuses into his films. Sometimes it feels really over the top. I mean, Tilda Swinton was a make-or-break performance for me, and unfortunately, it broke. (I'm sorry, Ms. Swinton. I find you a fascinating actress, but not in this.) But I think that we all wondered what was going on with Jake Gyllenhaal's performance. I'm going to revisit my original concept and I really do believe that Director Bong wanted to portray all American's as overt buffoons. Gyllenhaal's performance is so insane throughout the film that it actually almost pulls you out of the film. I get that he's built to be artificial, considering that his entire life is documented on television. But that performance kept just smacking me out of any serious moment. And that character is in a lot of serious scenes. But he comes across as Bozo the Clown and the movie is really asking me to think that this is a film that deals in nuance?
Man, I really wanted to love this movie. I found myself being bored. The worst part of me kept coming out and rolling my eyes at the heavy-handedness of a lot of things that happened throughout the film. Director Bong makes pretty movies that often are challenging. I think that this movie desperately wanted to be challenging, but it just came across as silly.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.