Bong: Okja (2017)
Along with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Okja was one of the first “prestige” Netflix films, and may well turn out to be one of the last to ever screen in Official Competition at Cannes. It opens with a brief prologue in 2007, where we’re introduced to a slightly different version of the twenty-first-century in which the lack of sustainable food peaked even more quickly than it already has, forcing corporations to scramble for the next major innovation in food technology. At the forefront of that process is the Mirando corporation, headed by Lucy Mirando (played by Tilda Swinton), and her “evil” twin sister Nancy, the former head of the corporation, also played by Swinton. In an effort to shake herself free of the legacy of her father, who founded the corporation and was notorious for his exploitative labour practices, Lucy engages a team of biologists, agriculturalists and genetic engineers to devise a new “super-pig” that will supposedly solve the world’s hunger crisis once and for all. Twenty-six specimens are produced and sent all around the world, where they are to be raised by a variety of local farmers and communities, and then returned to New York, in 2017, to discern which lifestyles and diets proved most successful.
One of those specimens is allocated to a young Korean girl, Mija, played by Ahn Seo-hyun, and her grandfather, Heebong, played by Byun Hee-bong, who has cared for her ever since her parents died when she was only a small child. Ten years later, their super-pig, christened Okja, has become an integral part of their lives, especially for Mija, who has been led to believe that her grandfather purchased Okja back from the Mirando corporation years ago. For the first third of the film, we simply follow Mija and Okja through their daily routines, as Okja helps Mija to harvest the landscape around them, whether by jumping in a pool to bring up fish, or shaking fruit from trees too high for her to reach. Throughout all these scenes, Okja seems to understand Mija’s language, and to have a deep communion with her, going so far as to save her life at one point, but she is never presented as heroic or noble in quite the same way as animals usually are when they inhabit this role in a film. Usually, that heroism, or nobility, works to indicate that the animal in question has somehow transcended their animality in order to achieve a kind of surrogate human status, but Okja is never anthromorphised in quite that way. Instead, both Okja and Mija converge on a kind of shared clumsiness and messiness that muddies the distinctions between human and animal life, rather than granting Okja a provisional reprieve from her inherent animality.
From the very outset, this depiction of Okja is somewhat disjunctive with the way in which animals are typically treated in film, creating a dissonance that is embodied within the very mantra and marketing strategy of the Mirando corporation itself. While Lucy Mirando may be concerned, immediately, with the health and well-being of her super-pigs, her foundational directive, when she releases them in 2007, is that they must be treated as subjective beings, and raised with love and care. At first, that instruction seems a little nebulous, but it quickly becomes clear that research has proven that animals therefore better if you raise them as if they have a subjectivity, meaning that Okja is immediately the best candidate for the first line of super-pig products when she arrives in New York, since her personality is easily the most individuated and idiosyncratic of all the super-pigs put on parade. As she is displayed to various investors and stakeholders, it becomes clear that the Mirando corporation’s ultimate goal, in the long term, is to reconcile meat-eaters and vegetarians by conceiving of a creature that humans can eat while it remains alive, or even a pet that is big enough to be “sampled” as a source of food whenever the occasion requires.
At one level, that turns the super-pigs into a kind of super-product, capable of indefinitely generating steak after steak while remaining alive and healthy to produce more. In this version of future food, animals “produce” meat in the same way that they might produce eggs or milk, resulting in a world in which vegetarians, if not vegans, can eat meat with little to no compunction. More abstractly, however, the super-pigs also feel like a kind of super-creature, promising to both address and resolve mankind’s inherently contradictory attitude towards animals, a contradiction that becomes even more emphatic in a late capitalist economy in which the spectacle of animals rendered edible, and the spectacle of animals rendered lovable, form two of the major points of affective consensus on social media. Hyperbolising the animal body as both an emotional surface and as a source of meat, Mirando organises a social media event around the arrival of the super-pigs that appeals equally to food bloggers and cute junkies, using exactly the same strategies to advertise meat as she would use to advertise pets. It’s a marketing strategy that has never really been attempted before – “making us fall in love with an animal that we’re already looking forward to eating,” as one pundit puts it – since the marketing of meat and the marketing of pets can only really proliferate in the first place by pretending that the other doesn’t exist.
As Okja demonstrates so eloquently, however, the appeal of cuteness lies partly in the spectacle of debilitation, meaning that the image of animals gutted and slaughtered is, in some ways, a logical conclusion of the peculiar pleasure we take in seeing them debilitated or frustrated in ways typically taken to signify sweetness. Even that underlying connection, however, can’t prevent these two ways of conceiving of Okja – as food and friend – from lending an atonality to the film as a whole, producing an escalating dissonance that often feels as if it is particularly focused on the role played by cuteness in South Korean culture. After finding out that Okja is bound for America, Mija almost manages to free her, with the help of an environmental activist group headed by Jay, Paul Dano, resulting in an anarchic and freeform scene in which Okja tries to escape down one of Seoul’s many underground shopping malls. While there’s inevitably a certain comic incongruity to the spectacle of this enormous beast lumbering through such a tightly-wound space, it’s striking just how quickly Okja becomes incorporated into the kitsch paraphernalia that she is disrupting, encouraging one shopper after another to take photographs and pose alongside the impending destruction, momentarily turned into tourists in their own country. Even when Okja is forcibly removed, and the environmentalists suppressed, the sense of cuteness still remains, albeit in a slightly more sinister form, hanging over the scene like a repression mechanism, a way of ensuring that things return to normal after the momentary rupture of Okja’s escape.
That atonality crystallises in and around Okja’s body herself, and especially the depictions of excretion, which tends to be the bodily process around which our twin conceptions of animals as companions and cuisine both tend to reach their figurative limits, and mutul dependence. On the one hand, Okja’s perpetual excretionis just a bit too naturalistic to count as funny or slapstick, but just a bit too absurd and excessive to be subsumed into a reflective or contemplative state of nature as well. On the other hand, one of Lucy Mirando’s most prized achievements, in executing the super-pig, is that every single part of the animal can and should be eaten, with different parts of the body corresponding to the different price range of different classes. As Lucy goes to some pains to explain to her investors, that even applies to the super-pig’s anus, which can apparently be turned into a particular type of steak that hasn’t been sold or envisaged before this point in time. As with the depictions of excretion, Mirando’s odd deliverery prevents this new cut of meat from seeming either parodically revolting or profoundly prescient, once again reiterating this particular part of Okja’s body, and the processes associated with it, as the horizon at which the human co-option of animality as either cuteness or companionship reaches its limits.
That recourse to toilet humour as a way of destabilising the viewer’s assumptions about animality makes it hard to take any party in the film completely seriously, whether as protagonist or antagonist, outside Mija’s relation with Okja. Swinton, in particular, is never especially convincing as either the “good” Mirando or the “bad” Mirando, while all the other characters are treated in such a peremptorily comic way that they are effectively non-entities, from Jake Gylenhaal’s performance of Jonny Wilcox, the “official” Mirando zoologist, to Giancarlo Esposito’s role as Frank Dawson, an associate of the Mirando company, to Shirley Henderson’s part as Jennifer, Lucy Mirando’s assistant. As Bong disposes of one character actor after another, he evokes something mildly yet inherently ridiculous about intra-human relationships, or relationships confined to the mere human, gradually folding them into a broader satire of the extent to which humans need animals to regulate their own humanity, which in this case means regulating the tonal consistency and complexity upon which a “human” outlook on the world should ostensibly be predicated. Put more bluntly, Bong brilliantly punctures the extent to which naturalism, as a register, depends on the quite unnatural subsumption and subordination of animals within his mise-en-scene, instead opting for an anti-naturalism that takes the inherent atonality of the animal kingdom as its point of departure, and tries to paint a picture of humans to match it.
What makes the film so intriguing is that Bong has to reach so far and so wide amidst the global human community to recapitulate that more animalistic atonality that he eventually ends up evoking the reach and sweep of the Netflix community itself, with the result that Okja often feels as much about the picaresque global community of Netflix as much as anything else. Like Okja, the recent incarnation of Netflix feels like a spectacle that has been some ten years in the making, while the part that Okja plays as super-creature often feels like an allegory for the part that Okja plays in the global media landscape as harbinger of a new kind of super-film that retains all the craft and sophistication of an older model of cinema but that can now distribute it amongst such an unimaginable array of audiences and contexts that the model of theatrical distribution feels positively quaint by comparison. By distending the human world to the point at which it over-reaches and collapses back into the atonality of its inherent animality (or at least is no longer able to subsume the animal kingdom back into a single or seamless tonal entity for its own purposes), Bong thereby evokes the atonality peculiar to Netflix as well, whose interfaces allow the user to move from one feeling to the next with the click of a button, juxtaposing the very local and the very global in quite sudden and disarming ways. It feels appropriate, then, that Okja was a flagship Netflix film, and one of the few Netflix films to be in competition at Cannes, since it captures the decentred world that ensues in the wake of this streaming giant, which might have originated in America, but here promulgates a version of New York City from the perspective of that decentred world, where it’s no more or less strange or exotic than Seoul.
Yet embodying and internalising the disjunctions that drive Netflix as a platform eventually brings Okja up against an insurmountable truth – that the very presence of Netflix is both the condition for the film’s existence and the condition that prevents it being screened in anything resembling a conventional cinematic format. As much as Netflix might be concerned to corner the cinematic market, it’s directly aligned against the rhetorics of sustainability and reproductive futurity that propel concerns about the longevity and legitimacy of cinema as an independent medium. In a very real sense, Netflix is therefore the death drive of cinema, the point at which cinema consumes itself in order to remain itself, and that ambivalent relation to futurity percolates over into Okja’s social relations as well, which never guarantee or gesture towards futurity in a conventional reproductive or heteronormative kind of way. While Mija may end up back at home with Okja, her grandfather and a new super-pig cub, then, there’s no clear way of how either the human or super-pig part of this family is going to reproduce itself, while the fact that Okja is so emphatically gendered as feminine works against even a metaphorical marital relation with Mija. Indeed, Mija’s grandfather initially tries to calm her after Okja is taken to New York with a solid gold pig that has been a wedding gift in their family for generations, only for her to reject the gift outright before taking it with her to the United States as a form of currency, where she eventually uses it to buy Okja back moments before she is slaughtered.
In another kind of film, that might have turned Okja into a larger-than-life paternal presence, or even a distantly and figuratively romantic partner, but in Bong’s hands her body becomes the diametric opposite to those more predictable roles, forming a nurturing affective presence that abstracts and absorbs prescribed social relations and turns them into a more reparative and provisional mode of being-becoming. And it’s that mode that Netflix, by way of the film, wants to claim as its own, since the ultimate irony of Okja is that Bong searches ceaselessly for a way to imagine animals as something other than instrumental – even the environmentalist activists have a use for Okja – only for that gesture to be one of the most instrumental to date in personifying Netflix’s hold on futurity.
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