Nathan Le Master
July 3, 2017
Don’t watch sausages being made if you want to keep sausages in your diet. Don’t watch behind-the-scenes politics, if you really want to know how governments are run. Otto van Bismarck didn’t include capitalism in his cautions, but it’s definitely something that’s best left un-looked at, unless you’re mentally ready for a bit of despairing. And while rolled sausage can be presented beautifully aside eggs over easy in an Instagrammable-worthy photo, capitalism also can disguise its dirtier aspects through nicely packaged presentations. Simply showcase the final product in a polished form that makes you ignore those nagging thoughts in the back of your head: how did this get here? what was the process? what African laborer had to sweat out 10 hour shifts buried in a crater, tolerating triple digit temperatures to mine neodymium, europium, and cerium, to be shipped halfway across the world to an overcrowded Foxconn facility for some Chinese teenager to piece together the new iPhone 8, per advertised on the massive minimalist-style billboard you see on your daily commute alongside California Highway 101? Naturally, if you thought about the consequences of every action you commit, of every purchase, of every decision, the only rational reaction would then be paralysis. Don’t do anything. Don’t contribute responsibility. Live guiltlessly. Thankfully public relations and marketing gives us the smoke and mirrors we need to obfuscate the truth, alleviate any remorse, and let us get on with our lives. Ignore the potato-like man functioning the machine in lieu of the Wizard of Oz’s gaping maw.
Okja is about a giant mutant pig, one of many placed around the world from the Mirando Corporation, purportedly to study how different environments and local cultures influence these pigs’ upbringing and health. Nostrils flared, mono-nippled, hippopotamus-like, Okja is the super pig given to the young girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), and her grandfather to raise in Korea. However, fast forward a decade later and Mija discovers the truth, namely that having Okja live with her in Korea was no more than a PR gimmick. In order to better sell the idea of meat products made from laboratory manufactured animals, the Mirando Corporation, captained by the gaunt yet bubbly Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), launched this campaign to debut the healthiest and happiest pig, coordinated with the release of their new laboratory-meat product. When it’s revealed that Okja is the pig to be showcased, and Okja is abducted to be taken to New York, heartbroken Mija decides to chase after her best friend. This leads to a strange and serendipitous alliance with the Animal Liberation Front (AFL), spearheaded by the mysterious Jay (Paul Dano) and K (Steven Yeun). Together their adventures take them from rural Korea, to Seoul, to New York, concluding with Okja’s eventual return to South Korea’s bucolic mountains.
While some movies provide wiggle room for interpretation, Okja’s plot is undisputedly a glaring repudiation of the more insidious elements of corporate capitalism. And Bong Joon-ho’s masterful style allows this criticism to emerge in unique and creative forms. Take for example the Mirando Corporation’s reception room. Joon-ho places a giant glass partition dividing Mija or any visitor from the receptionist, the only line of communication being a single phone. Only by literally smashing the partition and charging her way through the office building is Mija finally able to get an ear for her complains. Similarly, corporations often use artfully deceitful means and methods to obscure themselves from the public, appearing transparent, yet hiding behind layers of jargon, legal paperwork, automated phone systems, and departments that shove responsibility to different departments. Anyone–pretty much everyone–who’s called a company to voice a well-reasoned complaint can probably collect all of the hair they’ve yanked out of their scalp into a big enough pile enough to resemble a Yorkshire terrier.
Just as companies strategically keep their finger in the air, when Lucy soon discovers the PR disaster caused by Mija’s pursuit to reunite with Okja, she creates a perfectly choreographed, yet baldly transparent campaign to rebrand the image of Mirando Corporation, by having a public reunion with Mija and Okja, with every detail planned, from attiring herself in a traditional Korean style dress, to having the Jimmy Fallonesque Dr. Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal) open the event with his faux enthusiasm. This rebranding to help shift public attitude towards a company reeks of Slavoj Zizek’s diagnosis of modern companies: “capitalism with a human face.” They advertise themselves as hip, eco-friendly, and down with helping the disenfranchised, when in reality, these philanthrocapitalists are mostly just conforming to current attitudes to stay relevant and remain profitable.
Another lovable element to Okja is Joon-ho’s wonderful capturing of the modern zeitgeist. He teases modern vanity, showing both Mirando employees and teeny boppers armed with erect selfie sticks, snapping photos or recording live videos with Okja in frame. He shows us the modern apathy young workers have towards their companies, having a Mirando employee forfeit against the AFL without a fight, attributing his lack of company loyalty to the fact that they don’t even give him health insurance. And even though capitalism is the lowest hanging fruit to attack, Joon-ho also playfully pokes fun at the progressive animal rights-activists. For example, one of the ALF members humorlessly shows Mija a slideshow with ISIS-styled, black-masked individuals feeding baby goats with milk bottles. In another instance, after the ALF manages to rescue Okja, one of their members starts passing out due to low blood sugar. When one of his partners offers him some food, he rejects it on the basis that he’s “trying to leave the smallest footprint on the planet,” replying that “all food production is exploitative.” Moreover, Joon-ho depicts fractures within this activist group, with some members clinging to a strict credo of committing no harm and never acting without consent, while others prioritize a mission’s completion at all costs, highlighting the cleavages between the Left’s traditional politics and its more militant offshoots (think Hillary Clinton volunteerism versus the radical group, By Any Means Necessary).
Similar to Snowpiercer, with its critique of class and wealth inequality, Bong Joon-ho takes a naked approach in Okja with his rebuke of modern corporate capitalism. But it’s not just the content of the film that does it; it’s the very history behind the film’s release that shows a commitment to his ideals. After all, this high-production film was released straight to the consumer via Netflix stream, as opposed to jumping through the hoops in hoops of middlemen involved with film distribution, no doubt explaining the boos he and Netflix received during Okja‘s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Like Chance the Rapper’s refusal to sign on to a record label, followed by his public release of his music for free online, the rolling out of Joon-ho’s film can be seen as its own form of protest. Let’s hope that such a statement made by Joon-ho, both in content and release, emboldens many more artists to follow suit.