If you haven’t had a chance to watch Okja, the latest installment by acclaimed director of Snowpiercer and The Host, Bong Joon Ho, I urge you to take two hours of your day, grab some blankets and go on Netflix, because oh, boy, does it have a lot to say!
The film opens with a smiling Tilda Swinton in a pristine white dress, exuding enthusiasm and charm. She is Lucy Mirando, the new chief executive of the Mirando corporation, and, as cameras flash, is about to announce something big:
The recent discovery of a species of superpigs. The end of world hunger. The beginning of a new era in food production.
Twenty-six superpigs are given to farmers around the world, spurring a decade-long contest to raise the best of the best. Okja is one of these creatures and grows up happily in the mountains of the South Korean countryside with her human friend, Mija. When the 10 years are up, however, Mirando comes knocking and Mija must embark on a desperate mission to rescue her best friend, and, in the process, discover the unconscionable cruelty behind the industrial meat machine and its corporate interests.
Okja, the story of a pig and her best friend, is one of resilience, friendship and, above all, a criticism of established capitalist systems. It’s an indictment on our ability to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, and the absurdity of protecting the lives of some while actively supporting the abuse, rape and horrible murder of countless sentient beings. It’s a statement on the cognitive dissonance of our society, which harms us all and threatens to destroy our humanity in the process.
Nowhere is this more present than in its cast of characters, one more absurd and insincere than the next. Bong fills his movie with caricatures. The Mirando twins, Lucy and Nancy, are the embodiments of self-involvement – one is greedy, one is vain. Seemingly polar opposites, they are one and the same. Both want their corporation to succeed, even if it’s on abject lies, unhealthy practices and the blood of countless beings. Likewise, Dr. Johnny Wilcox, the zoologist and TV personality played by Jake Gyllenhaal, emerges as an arrogant and terrifying figure. Despite all his laughable diva antics and façade of animal lover, he embodies something dark and sinister, committing some of the most atrocious acts of brutality.
We are also introduced to the ALF, the Animal Liberation Front, a ragtag group of activists led by Paul Dano arduously campaigning for the end to systematized animal abuse and the preservation of all living things. Though at times ridiculous, they are symbols of change and work to reunite Mija and Okja and prevent Mirando from decimating an entire species for profit.
The over-the- top characters provide a contrast to the two protagonists, Okja and Mija, whose connection is founded in the most profound and genuine love and appreciation. More than the ALF, the real heroes are the little girl and pig at the center of it all. They are the survivors: Okja, longing to return home, and Mija, fighting tooth and nail for what she believes despite having no money or power. That is empowering.
So, why is this film important and why should you watch it?
Simply put, because it’s relevant. Bong’s visual style, his appeal to color and his masterful set pieces, lends the movie a degree of surreality that is rooted in profound satirical criticism. It begs us to look at the arbitrary division that sacrifices some animals as food and celebrates others as companions, and recognize its absurd dichotomy head-on. Okja is a story about the love between a human and a non-human animal. Like its two protagonists, it’s real and personal. Their fictitious universe mirrors our own and denounces the loss of sensitivity that breeds slaughterhouses and factories, harming the planet, sentient animals and ourselves in the process. It is an indictment on the death of innocence, the killing of animals for food and the evils of factory farming.
It begs us to see in Okja all the beings that are separated from their families, forcefully
impregnated, enchained and tortured. How can we change this? How can we stop so much suffering?
But, Okja also gives us hope. It’s reception across the internet – the spike in interest in veganism and food consciousness – attests to the changing nature of our time. The film urges us to find ourselves in Okja’s pain and Mija’s struggle amid the disarray of the human world around them. Much like Mija, despite all her strength and perseverance, we can’t do it alone and are left to consider the need for collective social change and plant-based alternatives. By falling in love with a fictional superpig through the eyes of her human companion, Bong’s film forces us to question our cultural structures and consider how our choices affect all life around us.
It reminds us we have the capacity to affect change. One person deciding not to eat meat or dairy, buy from brands that test on animals, or purchase a ticket to institutions that parade animals for entertainment makes a difference. If we all stop to care, then more Okjas will be saved.
If you care about animals, don’t be afraid to try. It can be done. You can do it too. We are all navigating through the many injustices of life and being aware and speaking out against senseless acts of violence is the first step to creating a more empathetic world.
You can catch Okja streaming on Netflix right now.