When Margaret Cho and Tilda Swinton had a come-to-Jesus moment late last year about the whitewashing of Asian characters in films like Doctor Strange, Swinton boasted about an upcoming project that would show the world that she was on the right side of the diversity fight. According to Jezebel, Swinton gave Cho an exclusive scoop on the project she had been working on for two years with Bong Joon Ho. That project is the upcoming Netflix original film, Okja, which will hit Netflix and selected cinemas tomorrow. The film is about a Korean farm girl who befriends a giant pig and, when a big corporation wants to eat it, she has to fight to be reunited.
On the heels of backlash about Scarlett Johansson’s role in Ghost in the Shell and its very own Iron Fist, Netflix was keenly aware that it was treading on thin ice with this movie. From the trailers, it appears that the streaming site — and Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company, which partnered with them to produce the film — had at least a few of its ducks in a row. First of all, Bong Joon Ho directed, wrote and co-produced the film. Letting people of colour tell the stories of people of colour is always a good idea. They also cast a Korean actress, 13-year-old Ahn Seo-hyun, to play the lead role of Mija.
But the question of whether or not Okja is whitewashed is still valid. Trailers and teasers from the film — including a particularly weird commercial for the Mirando Corporation featuring Swinton — show that there are plenty of white people in the film. But they are portrayed as generally horrible, which is refreshing. Large corporations led by white people, swooping in to wreak havoc on the lives of people of colour sounds about right. So-called liberals who want to help people of colour when it’s in their own self-interest is also spot on.
So yes, for a film about a Korean girl, Okja is pretty white. But in this case, it appears to be for the best. I look forward to seeing the film and hopefully getting an answer to this question: if Okja is supposed to be a giant pig, why does he look like a puppy?