The industrialized first world lives with an ever-growing distance between the goods and services people need, want, buy and consume on a daily basis, and the dirty reality of how those things are produced for mass consumption. This distance is especially wide when it comes to food production, an area in which most people figure out all kinds of ways to overlook the objectionable realities behind what must be done to fill their bellies. That we live with this so easily, and have done so for so long, makes it ripe territory for fable, and so we have gotten one. And a dynamite one, at that. South Korean director Bong-Joon-ho mixes a wide blend of elements, themes and tones to produce Okja, a movie that is easy to watch, hard to finish, and impossible to forget.
The story begins in rural South Korea, where a young girl names Mija lives with her grandfather and an enormous super-pig named Okja. Okja, who looks kind of like a hippo with floppy ears, was genetically engineered by the Mirando corporation as part of a global contest to see who can raise the best biological prototype for a groundbreaking breed of livestock that has a smaller environmental footprint, is easy to raise, and tastes delicious. Okja is the obvious winner of the contest, but she is also sentient, highly intelligent, and emotionally connected to Mija, who sees Okja as her friend. That hardly matters to the Mirando folks, who take Okja away for a quick publicity tour in New York to get the public on board with the company’s new line of super-pig meat products. Mija gives chase, with no real plan in mind, but a clear intent to bring Okja back home. She runs into a cell of the Animal Liberation Front who are looking to take down Mirando’s entire operation, and in Mija and Okja, sense an opportunity to do just that. But as the ALF schemes and Mirando plots, Mija begins to realize she is in over her head, and that it’s going to take a miracle if she is ever going to see Okja again, let alone spare her from a fate that would be terrible to some, and highly appetizing to others.
This movie is a bunch go different stories across a bunch of different tones. And amazingly, this narrative juggling act works, thanks to some very deft pacing and an ever-present notion that despite an endearing coming-of-age story, and a touching separated friends story, and a pretty entertaining caper story, Okja doesn’t stop there. It is also a fable that approaches the morality of meat consumption from a novel angle: what if there was an animal as big as a hippo, raised like a pig and has the brain of a chimpanzee. But it was also the most delicious meat you ever tasted. Would it bother you to eat it? It’s a provocative point, and one that remains in the background during the movie’s somewhat cartoonish story involving the lucky but outmatched Mija, the earnest but bumbling ALF and the driven but cornball Mirando corporation.
But then things pivot. Mirando quits kidding around. Okja is no longer a camera-friendly prop, and she finds herself in a testing facility where her meat is sampled for tastiness, and her fertility is sampled by what what animal husbandry considers forced breeding but what humans consider forcible rape. As Okja endures increasingly worse treatment, the more human she appears, and we have to ask ourselves, at what point do we want to turn away? And if we do, why now? After all, isn’t the violence we see in this movie something we accept as a part of everyday life every time we sit down to the dinner table? If we eat a burger before watching Okja and we find the finale hard to watch, then there’s some cognitive dissonance going on. And that is the point: to unveil any illusions we have about our most commonly held notions about industrialized food, capitalism, environmentalism, animal activism, and a few other -isms along the way, each of which we often tend to oversimplify in order to fulfill the opinions we’ve already formed about it. Make no mistake: this movie clearly sides with Mija and Okja, sympathizes with the ALF and villainizes Mirando. But it does so with the full knowledge that hunger makes us justify an awful lot of horrible behavior to the things we eat, to each other, and even to ourselves.
We see this in the moment of truth, as a hundreds of super-pigs are being led to slaughter. It is an excellent scene, but features a tonal brutality that some who began watching this movie will not have bargained for. The pigs all realize what’s about to happen to them. Two of them in particular do something extraordinary that illustrates that the things we correlate with the highest qualities of human character–compassion, empathy, foresight and dignity—are by no means unique to our species. We see it in other species all the time. If these super-pigs could beg for mercy, they would. If we asked them for forgiveness, they’d be unsure if we were worthy of it. These are animals advanced enough that hitting them with a bolt gun feels like murder. Butchering their carcasses feels like desecration. And yet, none of that will ever sway those who have already dehumanized that which they intend to consume. People have a funny way of justifying the mistreatment of animals if we’re just going to kill and eat them anyway. The only reason why we have a taboo on cannibalism is because the practice makes us imagine ourselves on somebody else’s menu. But if we all tasted a lot better, who knows? There would probably be some second thoughts on the matter. We just don’t like to talk about it. And we’re awfully good about ignoring the things we don’t like to talk about.