No one who sees Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (debuting on Netflix and in select theaters June 28) could fail to engage with the quest of little Mija (An Seo Hyun) to rescue her beloved pet, an elephantine but peaceful piglike creature, from those who would fulfill the beast’s purpose as a food source. The writer (with Jon Ronson) and director courts more mixed feelings, however, for a group of allies Mija picks up along the way: members of an animal-rights group led by Jay (Paul Dano) who are determined to free Okja by any means necessary. The storyline may be fantastical, and other characters (such as Tilda Swinton’s corporation head Lucy Mirando) may be exaggerated, but the activists ground the movie with echoes of the controversial real-life exploits of the Animal Liberation Front.
The challenge of enacting individual motivations within the movement was embraced by those Okja actors. “I knew that we were playing a characterization of people who really do stuff like this,” Dano says, “and I feel that one thing the movie sheds a light on, at least for myself, is, why does a person sign up for something like this? They’re all different, especially in our little sub-group of the ALF; every single character [his team is played by Lily Collins, Steven Yeun, Daniel Henshall and Devon Bostick] has a different reason for being there, or has different ethics that make them willing to go farther or less so than the person next to them. It’s an interesting study in that regard, because sometimes you see the ALF as they intend, as just this giant organization, but when you pick apart the specific individuals that take part in something like this, it’s interesting to see that not all their interests necessarily align.”
Bong himself, who previously discussed the movie here, adds, “There’s definitely a level of contradiction within the ALF group. In the film, the ALF claim that they hate violence, but you can see throughout that they constantly inflict it too. They have a very noble cause, and you can understand that cause, but the movie also portrays them as at times looking foolish, and making very human mistakes. Simply put, they’re people just like us.”
It’s an approach he took to all Okja’s characters, sympathetic or otherwise. “Even Lucy Mirando—I don’t feel like she’s a villainess, in the pure sense,” Bong says. “She also has her flaws and her fragilities, as in the dressing-room scene, where Lucy talks to Frank [Giancarlo Esposito], and she says, ‘It’s a shame we have to tell those little white lies.’ I believe that’s an honest moment on her part, that justification. So whether it’s the people inside the Mirando Corporation or the ALF members, I wanted to embrace them within the boundaries of humanity, where they have flaws and make mistakes.”
Following up on Bong’s comments, Dano adds, “I was thinking how complicated it is to put a beautiful young girl [Mija] in the middle of all that contradiction. It’s one of the special things about the story. There’s a curious line between Jay and somebody like Lucy; Jay’s cause seems a lot nobler, but I think we all believe in our own causes, sometimes to the extent that it causes us to do things that we don’t want to do, often without knowing it or being able to justify it, or sort of looking the other way. I like that the film, even though it has many topical issues, isn’t overly preachy; it’s too complex for that. Even Mija eats chicken stew and catches fish, and throws the little fish back in. That’s such an important detail, and even though the movie has a fantasy level to it, I like the truth in the contradictions.”
Collins, who plays Jay’s cohort Red, was equally inspired to be part of Bong’s issue-oriented vision. “To be able to play a small part in such a big message was something I jumped at the chance to be a part of,” she recalls. “I fell in love with the idea that director Bong could see me as this character; I don’t think a lot of people would have been able to see me as someone like this. It was kind of a moment of enlightenment, really, when I read the script.”
For the actress, Okja expressed and reinforced her own concerns and interests when it came to consumption. “I’ve always been weirdly interested in food documentaries,” she says, “so during the prep of this movie, I watched more. Director Bong gave us all this ALF handbook, and we found lots of really difficult images of animals and their treatment in the facilities—the factories and food plants. I’m not a red-meat eater anyway, so it wasn’t necessarily that I changed my eating habits, but I definitely became more of a conscious consumer in many other types of products.
“The great thing about this film, though, is that it speaks to so many different themes—nutrition and environment, politics, love, innocence lost,” Collins continues. “There are just so many different things to be taken from the movie that are dealt with in a way that never tutorializes. What director Bong is so amazing at is addressing so many different ideas and presenting them to you, never telling you how to think. But if you leave the theater thinking something, we’ve done our job right.”