Hey readers – It’s been a while! While I cannot promise to be back to a regular blogging schedule, I think I might revive this little corner of the internet, also as a regular writing practice now that my main focus will be thesis research/writing. I am hoping to bring some of the academic thoughts I have on political science/political economy and food politics to the blog, as well as looking at news and ways that food politics is picked up in popular culture – such as the new Netflix movie Okja, below.
Other critics call Okja a “fantasy epic“, a “sci-fi satire“, or a “fable about a super-pig” – but apart from the size of the genetically mutated pigs that are at the core of the story, and the overwrought comedic characters, this movie’s portrayal of the livestock industry has few fantastical elements to it. Rather, it is uncomfortably close to home – and that, enveloped in a Wes Anderson-esque cinematography and score, might be its biggest advantage. By drawing in unsuspecting viewers, and confronting them with real-life questions about the origins of their hot dogs and tenderloins, it makes strong ethical points while also gently poking fun at radical animal rights activists. But let’s start with the story, shall we?
The (fictional) multinational Mirando Corporation has developed genetically modified pigs the size of small elephants that have a minimal environmental footprint, use less feed and create less excrements, all while tasting phenomenally. To sell this super-pig to a public wary of GM-products, the company’s CEO creates an ingenious ruse: 26 hand-picked piglets are announced to have been “found in South America” and are raised by farmers around the world in a 10-year competition to find the ‘best, natural, non-GM super-pig’.
One of these piglets, Okja, is given to the hands of South Korean mountain farmer Heebong and his grand-daughter, Mija, who forms an intense emotional bond with the intelligent, empathetic creature. When Mirando representatives come after the 10-year mark to award Heebong with the ‘Best Farmer’ trophy and to bring Okja to New York City for the pig pageant finale, Mija rebels and follows the corporate reps to Seoul.
There, the pig transport is briefly hijacked by the radical Animal Liberation Front (which exists in real life) who want to use Okja as a mole to expose the inhumane conditions the Mirando pigs are held in. The whole cat-and-mouse game comes to a dramatic finale in New York City, where Mija had been flown in to be reunited with her pig in an attempt at corporate image management. However, she ends up having to follow Okja to the New Jersey-based slaughterhouse and meat packing facility in a last-minute attempt to save her friend’s life.
I wonder what meat-eaters think of this film, particularly the last half hour. Other reviews have accurately pointed out that the more grisly slaughterhouse schemes would have not survived the cut if this movie had been financed through conventional Hollywood channels rather than through Netflix, though they still show a pretty sanitary, pretty much best-case-scenario slaughterhouse production line in my eyes. Shouldn’t we show the reality of meat production more often to test the public’s reaction to it? Have we come so far that even the ‘normal’ processes to arrive at a steak or a sausage should be out of the public’s eye? If so, kudos to Okja director Bong Joon Ho, for he does not shy away from reality.
He shows the use of cattle rods and stun guns, and comments made to Mija in Spanish while she runs into the factory subtly highlights the overwhelming majority of Latino workers in the US meatpacking industry. The way we get to know Okja as a gentle, intelligent creature worthy of compassion in the first half of the movie is cleverly juxtaposed with seeing her in the contraption designed to hold her still while she is stunned. But, really, this is the fate of every animal that lands on our plate, and we are made aware of that fact when Mija (spoiler alert!) walks out triumphantly, Okja at her side, across the hundreds and thousands of animals still waiting for their turn in the feedlot.
There are many other nods to reality in this so-called fable. The super-pigs are just as intelligent as our ‘real’ pigs are: a recent scientific review showed pigs to be able to outsmart dogs and chimpanzees, to have excellent long-term memory, to be able to solve mazes and puzzles, and to be empathetic and able to learn from each other in groups.
Furthermore, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) who in the movie derails the Mirando Corporation’s plans by exposing animal abuse is a real organization, founded in 1962, with the goal to protect animal rights and stop suffering, through illegal (though non-violent) acts – including property damage and vandalism – if necessary. They are considered a domestic terrorist (in the US) or extremist (in the UK) group, which is humorously taken up in Okja when they sprinkle flower petals onto the pig transport truck and yell ‘we are not terrorists!’ before boarding the vehicle. The ALF maintains that treating animals as property and not as ‘subjects-of-a-life’ with proper rights is an expression of speciesism; thus, their goal is not only to enforce humane conditions, but to stop the use of animals in food production and laboratories – they want ’empty cages, not bigger cages’. Yet, Bong Joon Ho also exposes the intricacies of radical ideological adherence when the ALF have to decide whether to re-release Okja into captivity for the greater good of exposing malpractice, with chilling moral repercussions.
Finally, though the Mirando Corporation is fictional, its plans are not as far-fetched as it may seem: Animal breeders have selectively bred food animals for maximum ‘yield’ (in terms of meat or milk production) for decades, leading us to broiler chicken with breasts so heavy they cannot walk upright or hyper-muscular cows who cannot walk long distances.
Furthermore, in 2015 a gene-modified salmon, which reaches approximately twice the weight of a conventional sibling at the same age, was the first genetically altered animal to be approved for food consumption.
So for the existence of super-pigs, the question seems to be not if, but rather when they will cross from fiction to reality – and at what price. Okja takes up these questions in a visually breathtaking, deep, and often extremely funny way – to be recommended!
Interesting further reading:
Building a Better Pig, Sujata Gupta, Pacific Standard Magazine
Animal Liberation Front – Animal Rights Defenders or Eco-Terrorists? Amy Zalman, ThoughtCo.