(Source: arstechnica.com)

  • Netflix

  • Netflix

  • Netflix

  • Netflix

  • Netflix

  • Netflix

The science fiction fairy tale Okja begins with a press conference so insane that it’s actually believable. In the near future, the Mirando corporation is trying to boost its stock prices by announcing a new project: superpigs, giant food animals whose poop is environmentally friendly. They’ll feed the world without polluting it! That’s when things get really weird—and mesmerizing.

Mirando’s new president, Lucy Mirando (played with demented gusto by Tilda Swinton), is also introducing herself to the world at this media circus. She’s like some kind of YouTube star crossed with a biotech exec, talking in hyperactive confessional mode about how she’s so much cooler than her twin sister Nancy, the company’s previous president. And don’t even get her started on their crazy, evil father who made Mirando into an animal-torture factory. He was awful. Now that Lucy is in charge, however, everything is going to be wonderful! And beautiful! When Lucy’s not hunting the world for “miracles” like the superpig, she designs uniforms for her private security force. That’s just how creative she is. You won’t want to miss the new scientific wonders coming from Mirando!

What’s so fantastic about this scene is that it’s only a slightly exaggerated version of the way company execs often turn their stories into part of the products they sell—for better and for worse. Sheryl Sandberg professionalized Facebook’s image with her hard-working “lean in” manifesto. Meanwhile, Uber’s disruption empire fell when CEO Travis Kalanick’s reputation was shattered by sexual harassment scandals. Okja’s satire is otherworldly enough to be funny, but still cuts close to the bone.

Satire and sincerity

Further Reading

In Borne, there’s a biotech apocalypse so weird it’s almost plausible The Mirando meme machine also comes with its own science celebrity spokesmodel, Johnny Wilcox (an almost unrecognizable, sublimely douchey Jake Gyllenhaal). Once a beloved TV personality something like “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, Johnny is now a drunk loser sopping up cash from any company that will pay him. Lucy has him doing social media for a contest where farmers around the world will compete to raise the greatest superpig over the next decade.

You can almost hear Okja co-writer Jon Ronson’s voice behind Johnny, who still hungers for the spotlight. Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, is famous for his snarky, wry commentary on how power warps people’s identities.

Okja comes on like a Philip K. Dick story, full of dystopian corporate theatrics and hollow-eyed media scorpions, but it winds up turning into a gut-wrenching, emotional story. A big part of its punch comes from the incredible acting. Over-the-top comedic performances are balanced out by deeply sincere scenes of sorrow and horror in the shadows of the meat industrial complex.

Our protagonist, Mija (Ahn Seo Hyun), seems to be the only sane perspective in the film. She’s a young woman living in the Korean countryside who befriends her grandfather’s superpig, the eponymous Okja. Her innocence and righteous fury are the perfect foil to the whacked-out cynicism of Johnny, Lucy, and Lucy’s assistant Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito). Romping through the ultra-idyllic forest, Mija and Okja are inseparable. But of course their time together can’t last. One day, Johnny arrives with a crew of social media thugs from Mirando to award Okja first place in the superpig contest.

Bong Joon Ho’s films, including The Host and Snowpiercer, often hover halfway between dark satire and balls-out science fiction action. He’s not afraid to make “message” movies, where we’re left with a very clear sense of who did a bad thing and how that bad thing screwed the planet (or, in the case of The Host, screwed Seoul). At the same time, he’s adept at coloring in many shades of gray around his basic message. There are bad guys and good guys, but mostly our characters bumble blindly through a treacherous middle ground.

A truly dark fairy tale

Trying to rescue Okja, Mija winds up thrown together with animal rights activists who want to reveal Mirando’s animal abuses. Their radical leader, Jay (Paul Dano), is in some ways just another version of Lucy. Obsessed with his own image, constantly livestreaming his group’s political actions, he cares more about ideological purity than Okja’s well-being. The film shuttles us between one hypocritical leader and another, until the only thing we trust is Mija’s bond with Okja.

There are some absolutely horrific scenes of animal abuse, which are not explicitly gory but instead work by implication. This makes them far worse, as we’re left to imagine the physical and emotional pain suffered by the obviously intelligent superpigs whose meat will boost Mirando’s bottom line. At the same time, no human is spared from the pain of corporate cruelty. Johnny, as the animal lover who sold his values to the highest bidder, has a pathetic, terrifying meltdown. Lucy, too, has been wrecked by her family’s bloody machinations.

Perhaps the only problem with this movie is that practically everyone in it is so despicable that we can’t really root for anyone to win. Though co-author Ronson told Heat Vision that Okja will convert people to vegetarianism, it’s not as if Jay’s anti-meat activists are a sympathetic bunch. Plus, Mija’s favorite food is chicken soup. The film offers its protagonists no recourse to the law, since Mirando has its own security force. And there’s no hope that Mirando can be stopped, even if Mija succeeds in rescuing Okja.

Still, it’s this bitter, pessimistic outlook that makes Okja a true fairy tale. It’s exaggerated, satirical, weird, and dark. The bad guys do genuinely horrifying things that will haunt your dreams. When you figure out the moral of the story, you’ll feel sick. That’s because fairy tales aren’t just about happy endings. They are also intended to teach you about evil so that hopefully you can recognize it—even when it offers you tasty treats.

Okja is streaming now on Netflix.

Listing image by Netflix

More Info: arstechnica.com

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