“Translation is sacred”
I should have learned from Snowpiercer. Snowpiercer was not Bong Joon-ho’s take on an American blockbuster. The Host was not Bong Joon-ho’s take on a monster film. These. Films. Are. Bong. Joon-ho. Films.
Okja has all the qualities of a Bong Joon-ho film. It has humor, sudden shifts in tone, idiotic and whimsical ‘authority’ characters, and an underlying theme that becomes clear only in the film’s final moments.
Okja is the story of a girl’s journey to reclaim her childhood friend, an enormous “super pig” genetically created for its ability to consume less feed and produce less waste, from the corporation that took her friend away from her. As part of restoring her company’s image, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) sends twenty-six of these super pigs to farmers around the world as part of a contest. Ten years later the best super pig will be crowned the winner in a celebration in New York City. The people will love it. Super pigs are cute. The people love pomp and circumstance. Super pigs taste delicious.
What Lucy Mirando does not take into account is the companionship formed between the super pigs and their owners, in this case Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her super pig Okja. Mija resides with her grandfather high up in the mountains of South Korea. She lost her parents at a young age and Okja effectively became her sister, her mother, and her father all rolled into one. Early scenes in the film show the two exploring the mountains and Okja’s intelligence is demonstrated in her use of a pulley system to save Mija’s life when Mija slips and dangles from a rope. Okja is further characterized as a shy and peaceful animal even when hurt by others. The CGI utilized in bringing her to life is exceptional. Scenes in the mountaintop as well as crowd scenes involving Okja are technical accomplishments.
After Okja is taken by the Mirando Corporation, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) intervenes to recapture Okja. Both the Mirando Corporation and ALF are caricatured by Bong to appease any viewer no matter their views on animal agriculture. It seems that having a high-pitched voice is instrumental in achieving success within Mirando and a number of comments made by ALF members in non-violent ‘fight scenes’ are deliberately humorous. Bong places both the Mirando Corporation and ALF at fault for acting in their own self-interest rather than Mija’s and Okja’s.
Okja contains moments of great warmth and moments of great horror. Mija’s journey takes her into a factory farm setting that, gruesome as it may be, pales in comparison to the horrors of factory farming. The most heart-wrenching moment comes when a mother and father super pig push their child through a gap in the electric fence in an attempt to save its life, knowing that they are mere days if not hours away from losing their own lives.
The theme of animal agriculture is a theme relevant to both South Korean and international viewers, likely the reason why Bong Joon-ho chose the theme as the topic of his film. Yet an additional, perhaps greater, component of Okja is the theme of communication. After being taken advantage of by a translator who incorrectly translates her words, Mija begins to learn English and later uses the language during a pivotal scene. How the Mirando Corporation and the ALF craft their public image is also a vital demonstration of the strength of communication.
Furthermore, communication forms the root of personal connection and empathy within Okja. Twice Mija whispers in the ear of Okja (and once Okja remarkably whispers in hers) and Mija’s ability to communicate, and therefore empathize, with Okja is central to the familial bond formed between the two. As a South Korean director who has successfully directed two films now for an international audience, Bong Joon-ho has firmly grasped the idea of using cinema itself as a language.