Bong Joon-ho is not only a smart filmmaker, a witty and sharp-eyed social satirist, but one who knows how to captivate an audience. In contrast to Park Chan-wook, who has earned a cult status in the U.S., Bong’s style is the sort that can appeal to to mainstream American audiences, and indeed, he was given a Hollywood project a few years ago, the dystopian Snowpiercer. (Park too had a Hollywood project that same year, Stoker, but it was a commercial disappointment.) That movie starred Chris Evans and featured Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, and a number of European actors (mostly British). Fit in the cast somewhat awkwardly too were Song Kang-ho, the star of two of Bong’s earlier movies and one of South Korea’s most admired actors, and Go Ah-sung. Besides them, everyone in the movie speaks English; the two Koreans communicate through an automatic translating device conveniently available to them.
I bring up these details of nationality and language because I at first saw Song’s and Go’s roles in the movie as an unnecessary distraction, a concession the producers must have allowed to humor the director or perhaps a choice made for their Asian marketing plan. Having now seen Okja however—Bong’s latest movie, distributed by Netflix, which he co-wrote with Jon Ronson (Frank)—and thinking more about Bong’s fascination with the United States and its relationship with his home country, I find myself thinking again about that casting decision. I don’t simply see awkward casting but wonder why it is that that casting is awkward. Why, in a Hollywood movie, do the Europeans fit in fine but not the Koreans?
In a testament to Bong’s skill as a storyteller working in studio systems, as well as the authenticity of his ideas, he uses the parameters of his movies’ productions shape his messages. In his Hollywood movie, the Korean actors seem out of place; in his Korean movies, his political focus is on Korean issues. And now, with a project from Netflix, whose products seem more attached to a cloud than any nation, he has made a movie that reflects his identity both as a Korean and as someone whose ambition requires that he work and find success outside his home country. With almost exactly half of Okja set in South Korea, half in New York, the movie isn’t quite American, isn’t quite Korean, nor does its satire portray the U.S. as a superpower that pushes little South Korea around. The problem here isn’t America itself but global-capitalist system that it currently dominates, and in which South Korea plays a major role, and the victim is anyone that gets caught up in its sweep.
The movie begins, after an expository TED Talk-style press conference on the recently discovered “super pigs,” in the lush, expansive mountains of South Korea. There, in unhurried and enchanting sequences, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), a junior high-aged orphan, lives with her grandfather and Okja, her super pig best friend. We learn at the press conference, from Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), C.E.O. of the Monsanto stand-in Mirando Corporation, that, a new species of pig was miraculously discovered in Chile—a lovable creature, more hippopotamine than porcine. Mirando plans to breed them for meat, but first, as a marketing stunt, they will send 28 of these super pigs to 28 countries, and whoever raises the best super pig will be honored in ten years. Okja is South Korea’s super pig, and we meet her and Mija just as these ten years are about to pass.
Ten years together means Mija has been with Okja almost her whole life, and thanks to their bond, the two of them live an ideal, idyllic life. They live off the land together, Okja rolling into trees to knock out persimmons or cannonballing into ponds to splash out fish. They take care of each other too: Mija takes a painful burr out of Okja’s foot and—oddly—rubs Okja’s rump to help her poop. Also, in a moment of remarkable valor, to say nothing of her creative problem-solving, Okja applies the pulley principle to save Mija from falling off a cliff. There’s no indication that Mija has any human friends—no mention is made of her schooling—nor does she seem to see any need for them.
This Edenic existence is disrupted though when Mundo (Yoon Je-moon), a loyal Korean Mirando employee, visits them in the mountains, followed by some assistants and Mirando’s spokesperson, Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a celebrity animal expert with a zany TV persona and dying fame. Mija’s grandfather has told her that he bought Okja from Mirando, that they’ll keep her forever, but he has lied, and the Mirando employees take Okja to Seoul, where she will then be flown to New York.
Mija runs away to Seoul to recover Okja, and in a lively chase scene, manages to get to the truck transporting her to the airport. That truck is apprehended however by an extremist animal rights group, A.L.F., the Animal Liberation Front, led by the strictly principled J (Paul Dano) and whose members include K (Steven Yeun), a Korean-American whose responsibilities include interpreting Korean. Their plan is to capture Okja and immediately release her back to Mirando with a hidden camera attached under her ear so they can record and expose the abusive conditions of the factory farm where they will send her.
In short, Mirando wants Okja for its marketing stunt, and later for slaughtering, A.L.F. wants to use Okja to expose animal abuse, and Mija wants to bring her best friend home. Everyone involved in this plot besides Mija is ridiculous, and some more than others—Swinton, with an artificial overbite, severe bob, and overall pale-hued appearance, and Gyllenhaal, mustachioed and rubber-limbed, are especially committed to approximating cartoon characters. Beyond their physicality though, these characters’ ridiculousness stems from the interests that motivate them. These interests can be simply money (Mija’s grandfather) or corporate loyalty (Mundo), repairing Mirando’s rotten image (Lucy, a descendent of a line of psychopathic C.E.O.s) or maintaining celebrity (Dr. Johnny), adhering to the broad tenets of A.L.F. (J) or completing the narrower mission at hand (K). None of these interests are inherently bad, and Bong and Ronson aren’t criticizing any particular project or ideology. Rather, they are criticizing the narrow adherence to such a project or ideology, the way this sort of thinking makes people incapable of adjusting the way they perceive of a situation, of considering someone else’s interests—a young girl trying to save her best friend—when they don’t align with their own.
A key scene to consider in this regard occurs toward the end (no spoilers), set in a slaughterhouse. It’s a frightful scene, but in contrast to P.E.T.A. videos, say, or the movie Fast Food Nation, the tone is not polemical—Bong is not trying to stir anything in you to change your diet or political values. The scene’s frightful quality rather comes from the nature of slaughterhouses themselves. Nothing we see is shocking or surprising, but by showing the workings of a slaughterhouse, Bong reminds us of what every consumer of meat is complicit in, something meat-eaters already know but would rather not think about. Whether eating meat is moral or not is left for us to decide; what Bong asks is that we do not ignore an uncomfortable truth like the condition of slaughterhouses when arriving at such a conclusion. In the same way, it is a moral failure, especially with the effects of our everyday actions today felt on a more distant scale than ever, to choose to be ignorant when not knowing is more convenient. (In a deft touch, we come across some Spanish-speaking employees at the slaughterhouse, playing a role in America’s economy too many Americans would rather not think about.) There is no positive moral in the movie—Bong and Ronson don’t push us to step out of the economic status quo and make our own space in the mountains—but there is a picture of what we should avoid: a life that can be reduced to principles, a way of thinking that lets you ignore the ideas that make life more complicated, a march forward with undeserved self-assurance.