By: Alberto Sclaverano
Bong Joon-ho is one of the most talented South Korean directors of his generation, and alongside other celebrated names (like Oldboy’s director Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk) he was at the center of a cinematic “new wave” that changed the face of Korean cinema in the early 2000s. In recent times Bong Joon-ho won an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director for Parasite (2019), definitely gaining international recognition. Social consciousness and political stances are not infrequent in his cinema. In Parasite he offered a unique description of the dark side of capitalistic society, and of what we can call modern class struggle. In Snowpiercer (2013), a movie I have recently reviewed, he described a post-apocalyptic world in which wealth and social classes divide people.
But there is another movie, less known, that I think can offer a lot of interesting material to reflect upon environmental issues: Okja (2017). This film was financed and distributed by Netflix, which provided Bong with a high budget and full creative freedom. The result is a strange fable that seems to be in the middle between sci-fi social satire (think of Don’t Look Up) and “magical realism”, a technique often used by some Latin American and Oriental artists (think of Haruki Murakami’s novels). In today’s South Korea young girl Mija lives in the countryside alongside his grandfather and a giant, genetically engineered pig named Okja, that has a special relationship with her. But Okja is soon in grave danger, as it is taken away from Mija. The giant pig is the result of medical experiments by the large company Mirando Corporation, which aimed to create a breed of super pigs for food selling. But young Mija is determined to save her friend, and she embarks on a journey to the United States to save Okja. Her adventures include meeting wealthy people, Lucy Mirando, the evil CEO of Mirando (played by Tilda Swinton, in a role that somehow remembers Meryl Streep’s character in Don’t Look Up), and members of the Animal Liberation Front, which use every mean available to fight Mirando Corporation, but sometimes seem more concerned with their ideological crusade than the animals themselves. It is not necessary to add other details.
Okja offers two very colorful hours full of adventures, emotions, joy, and sadness in equal parts. It is not easy to classify this movie, but what is certain is its strong ecological message. Mija lives a simple, yet joyful life with Okja and her grandad, maintaining a strong bond with nature. All the people and groups she meets in the external world seem to act way different, always busy reaching their goals and not caring much about other’s people feelings. The movie offers a very severe commentary on the relationship between mankind and meat animals. But it is not a political movie, nor it is a manifesto for vegetarianism (even if a particularly emotional sequence set in a pigs’ slaughterhouse will have some people think about that too). Okja is simply a little story about the friendship between a girl and an animal, and her desire to save his friend from a tragic fate. It is also a satire on large corporations and their greenwashing approach to marketing (Mirando Corporation presents itself as a very pro-environment group, but as the movie progresses their motives appear a lot more sinister and less humanitarian…). This explicitly ecological message is presented through a story that is essentially a postmodern fairy-tale, and that’s the movie’s greatest achievement. It tells the story from the point of view of a child, but it delivers messages and scenes so powerful and emotionally moving that will leave many adult spectators deeply affected and enchanted.