It’s baffling how often moviegoers who consider themselves politically savvy fall for assaults on their principles when the offense is disguised as “entertainment.” This week’s example is Okja, a new movie by Bong Joon-ho, the Korean director beloved by fanboys and hipsters for making genre retreads. Okja starts as sci-fi fantasy: a global food corporation breeds an animal for maximally efficient consumption, but this “guinea pig” — Okja — becomes a pet for a Korean farm girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), who is determined to prevent its designated slaughter.
Millennials may not remember Lassie, Bambi, or Old Yeller, but their fond memories of, say, Nemo the cartoon fish predispose them to this sentimental provocation about a helpless animal endangered by the very capitalists who engineered him in the first place. (Children don’t perceive irony, but childish adults do.)
So after the mawkish, drawn-out introduction of Mija’s feeding persimmons to Okja — he is essentially an oversized CGI pork product with the body of a pachyderm and the face of a Golden Retriever — the movie returns to its opening satirical critique of capitalism. Shrill executive Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces a “Best Super Pig Contest” to launch her new food brand to 7 billion consumers. Mija is forced into protective mode, but her personal cause is hijacked by political activists: the ALF (Animal Liberation Front).
Okja isn’t really a family movie (unless you’ve raised Red Diaper babies). Bong’s specialty is converting trendy social values into genre pastiche. His 2012 The Host used a sea monster for a Greenpeace PSA. His Snowpiercer remade Kurosawa’s Runaway Train into an Orwellian allegory. These nonsensical genre mash-ups have been acclaimed by viewers who are unaware that once upon a time action movies could offer a moral about human behavior without dispensing blatant agitprop.
Last year, Stephen Chow’s wondrous The Mermaid became the most financially successful film in China’s history but barely caused a ripple in the U.S. Chow took the alien thesis of his 2008 CJ7 (which was an expansion on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and made a human-based, adult comic fantasy about threats to cultural heritage within modern China’s class-divided society. Chow’s populism demonstrated the advance that has so far eluded Steven Spielberg’s recently politicized filmmaking. Now Bong shows Spielberg and Chow how to pander, with Okja’s unabashed mix of ridicule and sentimentality.
The best scenes in Okja belong to Swinton, part of her latest twin-twit routine (as in Hail, Caesar!) as rival daughters of a tyrannical tycoon. In Okja, her ruthless but insecure Lucy Mirando wears a Gwyneth bob, while her twin sister Nancy Mirando wears a Hillary bob. Swinton spoofs her own art-chic with Lucy’s pink, blonde, girlish couture and bucktoothed lisp (her pronunciation of “morons” is worthy of Lily Tomlin). Lucy’s rant against the New York Times and Slate shows that Bong and co-writer Jon Ronson grasp the connection between corporate and media inanity. There’s also savvy satire of the ALF, whose leader (comically pious Paul Dano) claims: “We inflict economic damage on those who harm animals. We never harm animals or non-animals, that is our credo.” Yet, in true Millennial fashion, he never recoils from violence.
Bong sides with the judgmental vegan-anarchists, but he also exposes their malice.
While Bong sides with the judgmental vegan-anarchists, he also exposes their malice. But this edgy ambivalence doesn’t last long. Bong’s seriousness becomes maudlin and freakish when Jake Gyllenhaal as a mad scientist has Okja drugged and monstrously violated. There’s even a concentration camp metaphor and a Sophie’s Choice moment for extra maudlin flavor. The outrageousness peaks during a promotional street parade in which the crowd of consumer-idiots observes the eco-terrorists’ attack on Okja and Lucy’s ad campaign — the gawkers just stand by like the dupable public in Stephen Colbert–Jimmy Kimmel audiences. The film’s mix of childhood sentiment, action-film violence, business satire, animal-rights fervor, and progressive sarcasm comes full circle.
Bong wants us to get worked up — both snuggly and agitated — about a Genetically Modified Organism, but Okja’s plot itself is modified for people who don’t know they’re watching propaganda so long as it pushes their buttons and makes them feel virtuous.
“If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it,” says Giancarlo Esposito as the double-dealing liaison between Lucy and Nancy in Okja. That line also defines the mixed-up cynicism and sentimentality of Pop Aye (at Film Forum), by Thai director Kirsten Tan. She uses the cornball image of a little man (architect Thana, played by Thaneth Warakulnukroh) walking alongside the pet elephant from his childhood in search of lost ideals. We’re way past the gorgeous emotionalism of the Walt Disney masterpiece Dumbo (1942) but not yet beyond the self-pity of feeling outcast and marginal. With its brief allusion to that iconic, indefatigable cartoon sailor, Pop Aye is a children’s movie for childish adults. No amount of outsider cuteness makes up for Tan’s dry storytelling. Is she discreet or just Sofia Coppola–inept? Thana and his big beast are on a long slog, encountering other marginal types, en route toward a narcissistic Aesop’s Fable.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its initial posting.