Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The Golden Pig: Okja and the limits of Satire

Critics of Okja have been quick to point out its jarring tonalities, one part satire of the world of corporations and branding events and one part touching story of a girl and her (giant mutant) pig. This seems to be off for at least two reasons. Tonal shifts seem to be something Bong Joon-Ho revels in. The Host also melded horror, a family drama, and a scathing account of the US involvement in South Korea, and Snowpiercer reveled in shifting tones, as every new railcar opened to a new scene and a new mood, from its own satire of the ideological state apparatus to the horrorific scene of black hooded executioners of the repressive state apparatus. A kind of jarring tonal shift is not new to this movie. 

The second reason is the more interesting one. I think on some level the reason Okja fails as satire is that satire demands on some level a minimum level of dissonance between ideals and actuality. One can satirize politics, revealing the petty squabbles behind the grand projects because there are supposed to be grand ideals. The same is true of education, the church, etc. Satire exploits the space between the state ideals of institutions and their actual functioning. This becomes harder to do with respect to contemporary capitalism. Okja opens with a massive rebranding of the Mirando corporation (basically Monsanto), which after years of negative press plans to feed the world with a new breed of superpig, pigs the size of hippos. Mirando's branding campaign has everything we would expect from modern PR, it is a little United Colors of Benneton and a little bit like the "micro-credit" that Whole Foods is always pitching. It is transparent as it is obvious, none of these things are actually believed by anyone. I guess one could say, as Zizek might, that these things are not meant to be believed but are addressed to the subject supposed to believe. That might be the case, but the transparency of the illusion makes the satire difficult to sustain. This is most painfully obvious in the case of Jake Gyllenhaal's parody of an animal planet television host. The joke would seem to be that he is woefully out of place in nature, struggling to hike up a hill, but even that is punctured by the fact that he is aware of his failing ratings. If everyone knows that the illusion is an illusion then what is there left to satirize. 

However, I would argue that Okja is aware of the limits of satire. Its most intense and resonate scene has nothing to do with aggressive re-brandings or reality tv charlatans but is simply a stockyard and slaughterhouse. The only thing fantastic about this slaughterhouse is the size of the pigs. Everything else plays out like a kind of CGI cinema verité: everything is true and mundane except the creatures. There is an interesting dimension to this ruse. Okja's turn to the brutality of the slaughterhouse is prefigured by the narrative of the film; before the film shocks us with the brutality of slaughter the ALF depicted in the film hijacks a PR stunt with video of the brutal treatment of Okja. The film narrates its own strategy. The creature feature pretext is really just a lure to get an audience to watch the ALF documentary they would never consider watching. Okja is a fictional pig, and her bond with Mija is the stuff of fiction, but the images of pig corpses dangling from the ceiling is harder to dismiss. Okja at times seems like a vegan propaganda film. However, in order for that propaganda to work there must be some shock, some power of images. The slaughterhouse must be something unknown or at least actively repressed for its revelation to have effects.

In the final scenes of the film Mija has tracked her beloved pig to the slaughterhouse, following her to the killing floor. There she is confronted by the butcher, air gun pointed directly between Okja's eyes. Mija removes from her fanny pack an old photograph of a younger her clutching a smaller pig, hoping that this image will change the pig from meat to pet. The butcher hesitates, but does not stop. Then a few seconds later, Nancy Mirando the CEO of Mirando enters the room. It is worth noting that Tilda Swinton plays both Lucy and Nancy Mirando, twins (something she has done more than once recently). In this case, however, there is a point to the duplication, one that directly intersects with the problem of satire. Lucy and Mirando are distinguished by their relationship to the brand and image of the company. Lucy wants Mirando to be loved, wants to change its image from its brutal past to becoming the company that solved world hunger. Nancy, however, just wants to make a profit; for her the ultimate selling point of the giant pigs is not the heartwarming story of how they brought prosperity to a small village but how cheap the meat will be. It is not a matter of branding but of cost benefit analysis for everyone involved. When Mija confronts Nancy Mirando she does not show her an image of a childhood pet, or attempt to threaten her brand image, she simply makes a deal. She offers the golden pig in exchange for Okja's life, or, more to the point, she buys the pig. 

This is the limit of satire that the film stages. Lucy Mirando, the believer in brands and images, can be satirized and scandalized, but Nancy, the calculator cannot. Perhaps on this point it is worthwhile to remember Marx. In Capital Marx has the worker address the capitalist as follows:

“You may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the R.S.P.C.A. [Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals], and you may be in the odour of sanctity as well; but the thing you represent when you come face to face with me has no heart in its breast.”

It is always possible to satirize human, all too human intentions, indicating the pettiness and cruelty underlying ideals, but the heart of capital is something entirely inhuman, the shear calculation of profits, it cannot be scandalized, only forced to calculate costs. There are no more golden calfs, false idols to be taken down, just golden pigs to be exchanged. 

The most powerful moment of the film, and most heartbreaking, is watching Mija and Okja leave the slaughterhouse as the rest of the superpigs are marched to slaughter. It is the most heartbreaking, but also the most accurate. Bargaining with capital, contending on its terms can save some but not all, and those who escape the slaughterhouse will always shoulder that burden. 

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