**PLEASE NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS**
Few people like to think about the murky reality of food production. Neatly butchered, cellophane-wrapped packages of meat line supermarket shelves, but the process marketers like to describe as ‘farm to fork’ remains secretive.
It is easier – and more palatable – not to think about it.
Netflix film Okja (directed by Bong Joon Ho) does not give the viewer that luxury: through the lens of cartoonish sci-fi and dark comedy, it forces those who watch it to think about the animals who appear on the kitchen table, and the hellish journey they go through to get there.
The opening scene of the movie shows Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the newly-appointed CEO of Mirando Corporation – a multinational company with a dark past – share her solution to feeding an increasing population. She wants to create a ‘revolution in the livestock industry’.
At a boombastic corporate event, and amid much fanfare, she tells of her plan to create genetically modified pigs. Her so-called ‘super pigs’ require little feed, produce minor waste – and more to the point, are a source of lots of tasty meat.
The animals will be outsourced to small farmers around the planet. Which farming method will produce the tastiest meat? In just 10 years, they will find out, and clone the best specimen.
Cut to a decade later, and the action shifts to the quiet Korean mountains, where 14 year old Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) plays with Okja – the titular gentle super pig. Not unlike a hippo, this endearing creature shares a deep bond with the girl. Director Bong Joon Ho cleverly uses small incidents to illustrate the connection between the two.
In one scene, the pair work together to fish – Okja throws her huge body into water, launching fish out of the water onto the rocks, where Mija collects them to eat later.
This small anecdote does more than show the relationship between animal and child: it sets up an an innate dichotemy between the ways Mija interacts with Okja, but consumes other animals; reflective of our own relationship with companion animals.
But this idyllic existence cannot continue forever. In fact, the time has come for the Mirando Corporation analyze which of their far-flung super pigs has fared best.
The ‘face’ of the corporation – overblown TV zoologist/veterinarian Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) – comes to take the animal to America to be compared to the other animals – and ultimately slaughtered.
Gyllenhaal’s Wilcox represents a breed of ‘animal lovers’ who on the one hand claim to respect other species, but on the other, continue to exploit them – whether for profit for other selfish reasons. While his performance has been described as ‘flamboyant’, it fits within the context of his character, and the film’s overall aesthetic.
Wilcox announces that Okja will be leaving for America – and the rest of the film follows Okja’s journey to America – and Mija’s journey as she fights to save her friend.
Okja’s journey to America, for experimentation and ‘processing’, is thwarted by a group of activists – who later identify themselves as the Animal Liberation Front [ALF].
The film’s trademark humor (which can be partly credited to co-writer Jon Ronson) shows here: following the rescue mission, ALF member Silver dips in and out of consciousness, his desire to reduce his carbon footprint means he refuses to eat – despite his co-activist’s best attempt to coax him into consuming a tomato.
The ALF is a contentious organization – seen by some as fearless fighters in the war for animal emancipation, and by others as lawless thugs. Okja pitches them as the good guys (despite a moment of dishonestly that sparks a major plot point). The group is led by Jay, played by Paul Dano, whose sympathetic performance lends a credence to the group’s aims.
The final set piece sees Okja and Mija visit a slaughterhouse. Anyone who has visited such a facility – or seen footage from within one – will recognise the set-up and equipment. The colour and tone of the aesthetic plays into the grim ambience.
This scene is surely the one that will have an impact on viewers – the sheer scale of the animals, and their relentless march from the holding areas to the killing floor, has a depressing realism (despite the animals being imaginary ‘super pigs’).
Does it have an impact on protagonist Mija? It’s worth noting that the meal she eats at the end of the film appears to composed of vegetables…
Okja plays on a number of themes – looking at humans in corporations, greed, marketing and the relationship between America and other parts of the world. The key thread has to be the idea of animals – how we relate to them and how they are commodified in industrial meat production.
One of the most remarkable things about Okja is its profile: it is deeply telling of contemporary thinking that a film skewering the meat industry – and asking such poignant questions around animal rights – has been given such a prolific platform, and so much media attention.
Netflix certainly seems to have a pedigree when it comes to vegan-interest content, and Okja certainly plays into that narrative. The representation of the slaughterhouse is chillingly accurate.
This is a film that should resonate with vegans – but more importantly, could make meat eaters stop and think too.