I’ve enjoyed Bong Joon-Ho’s work for awhile. The Host is one of my favorite sci-fi films and is an excellent monster-movie. I think director wise, his highest achievement was Memories of Murder. Snowpiercer was fun and gritty and had a politically intriguing end (seize the train or destroy it?).
So I was excited to see 옥자. The film tells the story of a young girl, Mija, and her fight to save her friend Okja, a genetically engineered super pig. The struggle takes her from her home country of South Korea to New York where she confronts an embodiment of capital, the Mirando Twins.
The film is full of allusions. Mirando is a stand in for Monsanto. Nancy Mirando, the openly psychopathic CEO, twin to the neoliberal Lucy Mirando, references a line repeated in Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle: “They use everything about the hog except the squeal”. Those that haven’t read this book, I encourage you to. It’s tragic and powerful.
Okja is available on Netflix. Apparently, Bong wanted to show the film in South Korean theatres, but Korea’s mainstream film industry refused. They cited Netflix as a destroyer of traditional film. It’s available in special small theaters, though.
Below, I’ll discuss some political points from the film. Obviously, ***spoiler alert***.
Capitalism and Consumption
The film begins with Nancy Mirando giving a presentation on her super pig plan. Her primary concern is being seen as ‘new’ and ‘refreshing’, in contrast to her psychopathic father and boring sister. The rusted factory where she gives her presentation gives the impression of a past she is trying to overcome. Think here: 19th and 20th century industrial capital versus 21st century neoliberalism. She needs people to “like” her (FB, media, etc). She is neoliberalism and ‘ethical capital’. They may as well have used the name “Whole Foods”. She is that brand that attempts to present itself as friendly and ethical. Of course, that’s impossible for capitalism to do. It is incapable of avoiding its own internal contradictions. Mainly, that in order to seize profit, misery must be created. The film later alludes to this.
So think Whole Foods, nine dollars for a ‘organic corn’, seeing the faces of the farmers that grow the food, ‘fair trade’. The goal is to create the illusion that consuming the commodity can be done free of guilt. It’s a stand in for catholic confession. It’s commodity fetishism. The commodity is presented ‘as-is’, stripped of its production process. It’s the iPhone censoring suicide nets on its factories in Shenzhen, China.
The film’s focus on growing animals only to be slaughtered highlights the inherent violence and misery at the heart of consumption. You can portray consumption as ethical all you want. At the end of the day, we are still talking about murdering something for food. In this case, Okja.
In the same way, the global proletariat are still wage slaves, no matter what labels you put on their commodities. Call it whatever you want with pretty colors, the point is that the bourgeoisie still remain in power and dictate our lives to us. We are still ruled, even if they clap for us.
Ethical capitalism is just another attempt by the elite to portray themselves as something they aren’t. They are self-aware and want to hide themselves. In this case, that’s done linguistically with happy music playing in the background.
Lucy Mirando tries to fix the problems that Mija creates after she attempts to free Okja. so Lucy brings Mija to the US, advertises Okja as the best super pig, run a media campaign on the new meat, hosts a parade and all that dumb shit. Due to the intervention of the Animal Liberation Front, her show tanks. Then her twin sister takes over.
Being a twin I think is intended to say that they we’re two sides of the same thing. Ethical capitalism cannot actually hide the fact that misery is inherent to the production process. So when it’s faced with revolt (the ALF disrupting the parade) it reverts to its true form: Nancy Mirando. Nancy is a psychopath.
Lucy Mirando cares about images. Nancy Mirando is cold and ruthless. Lucy wanted Mija and Okja to somehow still be friends (to make herself look good). Nancy calls for Okja to be butchered as ‘just another product’. She’s cynical and only ‘deals in deals’.
Hence, Mija cannot win by begging or emotions. Her moment of growth, from childhood to adulthood, occurs after facing a truth in the form of an Auschwitz style slaughterhouse. Her friend, Okja, which we are lead throughout the film to believe as being intelligent and able to understand language, is imprisoned and about to be cut to pieces. The brutal world outside Mija’s peaceful mountain is humanity’s industrial scale murder of other lifeforms, dictated by the demand of capital. She navigates through the labyrinth of murder and makes an exchange: gold for Okja. It’s the only thing that Nancy understands.
Mija returns to her home with Okja and another cute piglet they saved. But how is that an ending? Capital still reigns. Hell, South Korea remains essentially authoritarian and Seoul is just a few hours away. But the audience assumes that Mija learns she cannot, alone, change the world. Although she does kick ass while trying to.
This individual vs. society is a trope of modernism. Individual heroism versus class-wide struggle can be bourgeois in character. It’s not always, and it’s often done in film for the purposes of a narrative.
Politically, I don’t agree with the ALF. First, pacifism is suicidal. Second, I’m not an anarchist. Their politics are limited by their own desire for heroics. They are presented as stylized and romantic. They are the embodiment of their ideals, not characters in themselves. They give the feeling of a child’s fairy tale to the film. That’s cool for the movie. In reality, the politics only go so far. I don’t believe affinity groups and small direct action is a replacement for a revolutionary party. I’m far more Leninist and Maoist.
What do the ALF do? In the film, they sabotage. But that’s it. They cant actually fight capital. They don’t believe in violence. They allow themselves to be arrested. I get it, Okja is a child’s movie. But in the real world, destroying capitalism won’t be done with pranks or cool individuals wearing ninja outfits ruining a parade. We need to smash the fucking state.
I guess my biggest issue with pacifism is that often its adherents use class struggle as an avenue to affirm their own moral purity. They get us killed in order to exonerate themselves from the ‘sin’ of violence.
Also the scene of the ALF disrupting the parade reminded me of that stupid pepsi commercial. Film makers rarely do anarchism or communism right. Or any revolutionary politics for that matter. I thought it was kind of dumb, but fun.
Okja is fun. I was bored at first but grew to like the characters. Jake Gyllenhaal’s broken man was entertaining but his conflict with Mirando never grew to a dramatic confrontation. He is always half-way in the film and never enough to be interesting. More could have been done with that. He has no redemption as a character. Same with the Mirando twins. We are only given half-way presentations of them before Mija leaves back to Korea.
All in all, it shows the inherent violence of consumption. Humans must consume the biomatter around us. That unfortunate malevolence becomes murder under capitalist production. In communism, we’d consume meat from vats and I’d be totally fine with that. I almost became a vegetarian again after watching the film. But I’m not interested in consumer politics.
I don’t need to feel clean by not eating meat. I’m fully aware that if animals believed in god, humans would be the devil. I’m more interesting in global revolution. I don’t need to feel good about the illusion that I’m somehow not participating in murder. I am. Your iPhone is built with minerals stolen from Africa and constructed by people who commit suicide by jumping off the roofs of the factory. I’ve seen the suicide nets. You participate too, whether you eat meat or not. Your clothes are woven in Bangladesh where workers die in fires because the doors are locked.
Being human is having blood in our mouths and on our hands.