Old Major’s Daughter: The Lens of “Okja”

Some quick thoughts on what “Okja” achieves, and how we might consider it.

In a recent interview, the musician Josh Tillman remarked that children are incredibly “binary with the recognition of hypocrisy.” As the saying goes, “See yourself through the eyes of a child,” or something like that. The point, it would seem, is the reduction of preconceptions, assumptions, and expectations conditioned by experience to an outlook more innocent; in other, crasser words, forget all of the bullshit you’ve accumulated along the march to adulthood.

“Okja,” the latest movie from Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, has come under fire for at times feeling half-baked, having one foot in overt satire, the other firmly planted in the real, sort of like a noncommittal and self-conscious Wes Anderson film. Indeed, it’s hard to reconcile the earnestly grotesque, Sinclairian depictions of production and corporate greed with the often deadpan absurdity of the characters; the whole is not subject to the same treatment as its parts. But I think this incoherence is useful, because, whether intentionally or not, Bong has presented the world as his protagonist, Mija, perceives it.

At 11 or 12, Mija, the surprisingly resourceful granddaughter of a montane Korean farmer, is not naive enough to see things as overly cartoonish, but still green enough to notice, and perhaps be hypersensitive to, nonsensicality. One scene, in which animal rights activists explain to Mija their philosophy and mission in the back of a semi-truck, teeters on the edge of sincerity and comedy. Two activists, played by Paul Dano and Stephen Yeun, engage in a subtle skirmish about the importance of nuance in translation, the consequences of which, we’re later shown, are anything but playful. All the while, they’re being pursued by an orderly line of dozens of cop cars. One is rather unsure how to contextualize what’s happening. Is Dano’s character a little socially aloof, or a man of conviction-to-a-fault, or maybe both, or…? And then one of the activists passes out because apparently, he doesn’t eat at all on account of all food having at some point been dirtied by unsustainable practices. Should we laugh? This uncertainty, however, mirrors the “almost-thereness” of Mija’s take on the adult world. By being unable to ascertain the exact difference between mature dialogue and stupid, sacrosanct social curtsies, the end effect of the whole tirade is that, instead of sympathizing with the righteous cause, Mija just wants to take her pig home; the audience can hardly blame her.

The beginning of the film, a Ted-Talk-from-hell keynote by the neurotic CEO of the agriculture conglomerate, Mirando, is similarly unnerving. While it pretty neatly gets all of the necessary exposition out of the way, the piece also heavily satirizes the faux “wokeness” companies are all too keen to display in their PR efforts. In real life, there’s just no fucking way a talk of this creepy intensity and literal wide-eyedness would ever survive a board room review. But that is, of course, the point of satire.

A cynical but interesting observation: The keynote is supposed to take place in 2007. The problem here is that the aesthetic and cultural zeitgeist it is lampooning didn’t fully exist back then. The graphics in the slide deck, for example, are simply out of step with graphical conventions of the time. So, too, does everyone look like they’re dressed in accordance with the Summer 2017 Yves Saint Laurent catalog. Where are all the fancy pockets and mini-vests? Simply put, it uses post-iPhone memetics in a pre-iPhone world.

This theme, ethical systems that can’t keep track of their own methodology, is more or less the core focus of the film. The hypocrisy of corporate PR is on full display in Mirando’s efforts to clean up the mess Mija has made for them, going so far as to even install her as their poster child. Likewise, the aforementioned Animal Liberation Front, though at times laughably adherent to their creed of non-violence, are far too prone to ironic statements and actions that contradict their underlying project. This is most evident in a scene where Dano beats the shit out of Yuen while espousing the pacifist tenets of the ALF. If we return to our interpretation of “Okja” through the eyes of Mija, we see a world that writes off moral black-and-whiteness as a childish ideal, yet that toils feverishly to organize complex, contradictory ideologies into a neat little good vs. evil paradigm, and in doing so, destroys the possibility of a neat little good vs. evil paradigm. What’s more, the film does all of this with incredible cinematographic technique.

Then there’s the titular Okja, an outlet for the elevation of the Natural. We see in her the possibility of all our primal fantasies. She is the original, “uncooked” being that, in a cruel twist, almost everyone wants to cook. Damn us! I greatly enjoyed the ending, and think it’s treatment of the relationship between Okaj and Mija made the film’s message far more resonant: they didn’t die, but everything else is still pretty fucked up. The worst part is that you know, deep down, nothing will change. As far as Mija is concerned, however, (our eyes and ears, remember) things turned out quite alright.

I don’t believe it’s without problems, though. I found Tilda Swinton’s character(s) rather confusing: Lucy’s arc felt underdeveloped, whereas the introduction of Nancy felt unpolished. They certainly set up her arrival throughout the film, but that didn’t stop it from coming across as any less clunky. The obscuring of her face, for example, was almost laughable, because it was so clearly Tilda Swinton, such that when she finally turned around, I was left with the sense of having been disrespected by the device. Without ruining things, they also use Nancy’s ruthless profit motive as a sort of deus ex machina to resolve the film’s climax. Although, I’m not too against this, as it was a bit of dry humor, and could also be construed as the moment Mija “eats the apple,” so to speak, by succumbing to the dirty tactical imperatives of capitalism. I didn’t fully get Jake Gyllenhaal’s zany Steve Irwin character but wish he would’ve played more of a pivotal role. It seemed like he could have been a man full of history and motives relevant to the story, but instead, Dr. Wilcox served mainly as an off-the-wall set-piece.

Yet it could be that, in keeping with our method, these characters need no coherent arcs. They’re real people that make no sense, that have bizarre idiosyncrasies, and whose motivations might differ from one moment to the next. I don’t mean to use this as a cop-out in justification of the film’s shortcomings, but our use of Mija as a narrative lens does lend itself to this.

All said and done, Bong (such a great name) gave us a work that is at once awesome, intelligent, and distinctly gorgeous, an E.T. meets Spirited Away meets The Jungle for the Facebook era. I dug what this film had going on.

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