Closed Glass Doors: Corporate Duplicity In OKJA

Bong Joon-ho knows that corporations only show you what they want you to see.

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A relatively early scene in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja finds Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) at the Seoul headquarters of the Mirando Corporation, who have repossessed her prized superpig Okja with plans to show off Okja’s size and prowess at a public relations stunt in New York City. None of that really matters to Mija, except insofar as her best friend has been taken from her, and she’s determined to get Okja back by any means necessary. But as Mija approaches the front desk, she is prevented from going any further by an invisible barrier, a glass wall without any visible doorways. The receptionist, sitting behind a traditional-looking desk on the other side, mimes for Mija to pick up the courtesy phone, yet doing so does not connect Mija with the receptionist, but to a labyrinthine tree of automated voice recordings. Frustrated with the lack of accessibility, Mija charges the glass and breaks through, only to find that Mirando’s office, despite being allegedly transparent from its glass walls, is entirely unpopulated, completely devoid of people to confront over the inhumanity of taking Okja.

This sequence is demonstrative of a running theme in Okja, namely that corporations are by their very nature duplicitous, amoral, and mechanically destructive. It’s an old cinematic standby to contrast the innocence of a protagonist’s upbringing with the darkness of the evils the plot will force them to encounter, but it’s an exceedingly effective mechanism here to showcase one of Okja’s central theses: empathy and business are incompatible, and business interests pretending at empathy are inherently untrustworthy.

When Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives with camera crew in tow to examine Okja, Mija is enamored with the television personality on her doorstep, entirely failing to grasp that the man’s rantings in English betray him as a whiny egotist who cares more for his comfort and prestige than the wellbeing of the superpigs. He’s the face of celebrity endorsement, paid to show up and put on a show to sell people on the positivity on behalf of a faceless corporate entity. But he’s ultimately motivated by self-interest. As we later see in scenes where he bemoans his falling celebrity star and drunkenly tortures Okja to reap the benefits of her gargantuan size, he may once have had a passion for animal well-being, but now he is a broken shell of a man, beholden to his personal comforts and terrified at the prospect of losing his adoring public.

Contrast this with the members of the Animal Liberation Front, who aren’t terribly concerned with their own public image. On the whole, Jay (Paul Dano) and his crew are motivated by humanitarian desires, driven to expose the Mirando Corporation for being cruel taskmasters to the superpig crop. They are adherents to a strict ethical code of honesty and compassion, one that K (Steven Yuen) violates by deceiving his comrades into thinking Mija is a willing accomplice in their plan and pays for through expulsion from the group. These are well-meaning, goofy, and ill-provisioned individuals, but they also demonstrate themselves to be highly organized around their ethics and convictions, meaning that even though their impact on the Mirando Corporation’s actions is small, it’s enough to cause the Mirando sisters cause for alarm as a force of truth against power.

Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) would properly be classified as the ego of the Mirando Corporation, operating under the delusion that her actions as CEO in rehabilitating the company’s image are putting good into the world after the unpopular and unethical reign of her father. She’s driven by ambition and is a demonstrably good businesswoman, acting as the public face for shareholders in complement to Dr. Wilcox’s play to the masses. She knows on some level that the Corporation’s practices in raising and harvesting animals would be subject to public criticism and scrutiny if ever exposed, but she also equates the popularity of herself and her company with actually being ethically sound. She paints the superpig project in flashy presentations and dramatic competition, but her goals aren’t to make a better world or even a more satisfying consumer product; instead, she offers the illusion of transparency with the goal of appearing like a public good, ignoring the icky details of what exactly her company does in achieving its goals.

However, if Lucy is the ego of Mirando, her twin sister Nancy (also Swinton) is the id, the amoral driving force that pushes the Corporation to prosperity. We’re given a look into the daily operation of the Mirando Corporation through Lucy’s subplot, but even as we peer in, it isn’t readily apparent that Nancy is a force in the company, seemingly relegated to the same past as the twins’ father but operating through a proxy (Giancarlo Esposito). However, when public relations fail in the fallout of the ALF’s exposure of the Corporation’s abusive practices, it's Nancy who steps in, lets Lucy take the fall as the public face, and pushes hard to keep the launch of superpig products on a tight schedule. She’s not so much cruel as she is focused on profit to the exclusion of all else, even her own humanity.

And that’s what we see as Mija, Jay, and K infiltrate the superpig slaughterhouse to reclaim Okja. The superpigs are living beings, treated as property by virtue of their artificial creation, yet they are still thinking, feeling animals who are crowded, shocked, beaten, raped, and nonchalantly destroyed for the purpose of human consumption, both as sources of nutrition and as capitalist products. And the why of it all, according to Nancy, is that the products of superpigs are profitable, in “everything but the squeal.” That’s why Nancy is so easily dispatched by Mija’s plea to purchase Okja with a solid gold pig miniature. Nancy, and by extension her business, is not motivated by any sort of ideology, either counter to that her sister presented of the company or in egotistic adherence to it. According to Bong Joon-ho, the defining interest of business is to make money, to build profits, to please faceless shareholders. Selling Okja to Mija is more profitable than selling Okja’s meat would be. It’s as simple as that. And all the assertion and performance of corporate transparency is constructed to disguise this one simple, obvious fact of capitalism. Morality doesn’t matter, so long as the number after the dollar sign just keeps going up.