Okja, the new film from the director of Snowpiercer, was simultaneously released online and in the theater to coincide with the extended Fourth of July holiday. But Okja, which seeks to portray capitalism in a negative light, deserves to be remembered for its portrayal of how free markets save lives.
Okja is the story of a simple South Korean orphan named Mija (An Seo Hyun) whose only friend is the film’s titular character, a genetically modified “super pig” about to be slaughtered. Okja (pronounced “OAK-juh”) is a gentle-hearted CGI that looks like a cross between a rhino and a manatee. The Mirando Corporation launched a 10-year-long contest for farmers to raise these massive animals, specially bred to feed starving people while leaving “a minimal footprint on the environment.”
As the film opens the corporation’s spokesman, a whiny TV scientist reminiscent of Bill Nye (Jake Gyllenhaal), has proclaimed Okja the winner. Soon, it dawns on 14-year-old Mija what awaits her beloved pet – and she springs into motion to save the gargantuan gilt’s life.
Produced for Netflix, Okja began a limited theatrical release on Wednesday and competed for the Palm d’Or at Cannes, stirring Oscar speculation. Bong Joon Ho, the director of Snowpiercer, puts his genre-blending style on display here, as well. But its moments of lighthearted comedy and adventure outshine the dull thud of leaden propaganda that otherwise pervades his script.
Still, Okja reaches an important, market-affirming truth in spite of itself.
Warning: This section contains spoilers.
The film literally begins with a ritual denunciation of capitalism, as Mirando CEO Lucy (Tilda Swinton) brands the company’s founder – her grandfather – “a terrible man” who committed “atrocities.” Motioning toward Mirando headquarters, she says, “These walls are stained with the blood of fine working men.” We later learn that her family produced napalm, and, when Lucy’s crazed twin Nancy was CEO, she “dumped so much toxic waste into” a lake “that it exploded.”
The dialogue features all the subtlety of a Daily Worker op-ed.
Meanwhile, Mija playfully romps with Okja, who saves her life. When Mija learns that her grandfather was unable to purchase Okja – instead buying her a golden calf, err, pig – she sets out to return the favor.
Along the way, she meets the friendly hijackers of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a real-life “direct action” organization that Bong portrays as unfailingly sympathetic. “We inflict economic damage on those who profit from [animals’] misery,” says the onscreen leader, Jay (Paul Dano). Although he paraphrases ALF’s actual “40-year credo” never to hurt any creature, human or animal, Jay administers a ruthless beating to a fellow ALF member and commits terrorism without a hint of irony.
Okja is cruelly tortured – and blinded – by her capitalist oppressors. When ALF liberates Okja, with the help of Mija’s love, her eyes are opened.
The group saves Okja but asks Mija’s permission to send her back to the company’s mass slaughter facility, in order to secretly record its conditions. The translator betrays Mija (who does not speak English), and her pursuit continues.
A heartlight vs. “the heart of capitalism”
The simple child’s quest to save a lovable creature from a faceless system is reminiscent of E.T., albeit replacing government bureaucrats with corporate executives … who happen to be the animal’s rightful owners.
But Okja lacks the (glowing) heart of E.T., which emphasized the loving relationship between the two protagonists. Bong has another purpose: to demonize corporations.
The film’s climax shifts to Manhattan because it is, in Bong’s words, “the heart of capitalism.” There it offers a graphic tour of Mirando’s mass slaughterhouse, where Bong (who co-wrote the film) lingers over scenes of torture, killing, and a river of blood flowing through the facility. Bong said these graphic images were “absolutely necessary” to “make the audience feel uncomfortable. It is witnessing your family being dragged into a slaughterhouse.”
“This is the state of capitalism today, and this is what I wanted to convey,” Bong told the BBC.
Such cold-hearted capitalist mentality is on display as Nancy, who has ruthlessly returned to Mirando, tells Mija her pet’s death “is business.”
But the film’s conclusion upends this simplistic portrayal. Mija uses the golden pig to purchase Okja’s freedom. At that moment, Nancy’s demeanor changes completely, instructing security to make sure “our customer and her purchase get home safely.”
Despite Bong’s anti-capitalist screed, the free market saves the day.
As of this writing, Okja holds an 84 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes. It has rare moments of comedic success, such as its surreal use of “Annie’s Song,” and inspiring cinematography. (The scene of Mija walking against the colorless crowds is a must-see.) But it fails to connect with its viewers, because bare propaganda lacks human depth and emotion. Okja should be remembered, if at all, for three things:
- Its positive portrayal of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).
Analysts say that ALF and its allied Earth Liberation Force (ELF) have engaged in an increasingly violent pattern of crime. The FBI testified before the Senate in 2004 “that the ALF/ELF and related groups have committed more than 1,100 criminal acts in the United States since 1976, resulting in damages conservatively estimated at approximately $110 million.” The FBI added that ALF extremism poses “a serious domestic terrorist threat.” While ALF has generally avoided violence, it has embarked on an escalating campaign of arson and the use of IEDs, according to STRATFOR. One eco-arsonist carried in his backpack a copy of the book The Declaration of War: Killing People to Save the Animals and the Environment, published by ALF.
- Its misleading portrayal of genetically modified food (GMOs) as dangerous.
Okja consistently presents GMOs as an offense against nature; one ALF member insists any sane person would be “disgusted at eating mutant, GM foods.” Bong told the BBC he intended this as a propaganda point: “There are people who say the danger of GM foods is being overly exaggerated,” he said, “but nobody is able to prove their safety, either.” However, the European Union looked at a decade of relevant data before concluding that “GMOs are not per se more risky than, e.g., conventional plant breeding technologies.” In April, Cuba announced it would turn to GMOs to save its floundering socialist economy. Needlessly denying hungry people access to safe food is an unusual moral message. The film also raises the question why it is moral to create GMOs for companionship but not nourishment or the survival of the human race.
- Its conclusion that the free market liberates man and beast alike.
Ultimately, what saves Okja (the animal, not the film) is free market capitalism. Mija makes a consumer choice that she values her pet more than a solid gold statue. Mirando seeks to make a profit by catering to human needs. The conclusion of this film is the flip-side of Adam Smith’s famous dictum that prosperity is not caused by the entrepreneur’s benevolence; much less is a corporation primarily motivated by sadism. It bears remembering that the free market has long been involved in conservation – including the preservation of species facing extinction – from the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association in Pennsylvania, to the Sea Lion Caves of Oregon, to the work of Ducks Unlimited in preserving wetlands through private ownership.
Okja accurately teaches that each individual affects the world by choosing which products to purchase. Every dollar is a vote for or against a good or service. Only when denied this choice can a system impose barbarism on an unwilling society.
Fans of the free market would do well to vote with their dollars and watch something else besides Okja this summer.
(Photo credit: Okja trailer screenshot.)