Words || James Booth
It is a winter evening in Glasgow, Scotland. I’m sitting by myself in the rental home of friends on exchange, watching Boon Joon-ho’s OKJA and I’ve been crying for approximately half an hour. perhaps it was influenced by my two years of vegetarianism, or It could have been the animal law unit I’d completed a few weeks prior, or maybe it was just my empathetic self and tendency to cry during movies. Either way, it’s been months since I first watched it and I still consider OKJA to be one of the most moving films I have seen and one I consistently recommend.
So what exactly is an OKJA? Debuting at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, and later streamed on Netflix, OKJA is a dystopian exploration of the ethical consumption of meat in a climate that is becoming more environmentally conscious and increasingly more aware of animal rights. The premise of the film is simple, the historically controversial and cruel Mirando corporation is rebranded by the self-defined environmentalist Lucy Mirando, who announces in the year 2007 that a 10 year experiment into ethical meat consumption is to occur. In this experiment we see 26 “super pigs” distributed to farmers throughout the world, with the intention of crowning one pig the winner of the competition and the best super pig specimen. This story however is balanced against the personification of Okja, one of the super pigs, as the best friend and companion of Mija, our farmgirl protagonist played by Ahn Seo-hyun. Needless to say, the South Korean countryside breeds a damn good super pig. Okja is announced as the winner of the competition, and is swiftly removed from the care of Mija and her grandfather to be returned to America as the property of the Mirando Corporation.
Perhaps what I admire the most about this film lies in how well it satirises the industrialised meat industry in the western world. We can view the Mirando corporation as a parody of our western obsession with buying animal products that are organic or free range, and our attempts to reassure ourselves that we don’t mistreat the animals we consume. This ideology can be seen in our own contemporary Australian context, even as recently as the outrage towards the live export of animals to countries which “inhumanely” kill their animals: despite the fact that the legal distinction between humane killing of animals and inhumane killing is the requirement for animals to be stunned via a bolt to the brain before slaughter. This is why the two key media personalities, CEO Lucy Mirando and zoologist Dr. Johny Wilcox, are such interesting caricatures of the way in which corporations and scientists are able to mask animal suffering with charisma and marketing. They offer a perfect parody of “greenwashing”, a marketing phenomenon in which words like organic or the colour green used in packaging, are able to infer a sense of environmental consciousness and planetary citizenship.
Moreover, it is fascinating how well the film developed a well rounded and lovable character in Okja, an imaginary creature the viewer would have no prior experience with or opinion on, before using her and the audience’s attachment to her to explore the cruelty often seen within industrialised animal agriculture. In animal rights movements, the disparity between the way we view animals we care for as pets and the way we view animals we believe are intended for consumption is referred to as “moral schizophrenia”: a phrase which draws on societies perception of schizophrenic individuals as jumping between thoughts without much logical explanation. Okja and Mija exemplify the relationship that many of us have with our dogs and cats, so it can come to be understood that in the beginning of the film we are introduced to the super pig as a pet. This is juxtaposed by later scenes depicting fictional representations of our own contemporary animal agricultural practices, in turn highlighting such a sense of “moral schizophrenia” between those involved with the Mirando Corporation’s actions and the viewer’s own view of Okja as Mija’s companion. At this point, the viewer should reflect upon their own morality behind the real world experiences of animals that we breed to be consumed, as these scenes are not fictional, but rather a reflection of our own world.
Conversely, the film balances its criticism and parody of the meat industry with its parody of animal rights activism in the western world. The hypothetical “Animal Liberation Front” (ALF) within the film are a group of passionate guerrilla activists out to disprove the misconception that these super-pigs are a means of ethical consumption of meat, and serve as a caricature of the ways in which many animal rights activists prioritise shock factor and the thrill of exposing the industry over the protection of individual animals. We see this in their support of returning Okja to the Mirando corporation, in order to capture video evidence of the cruelty that will aid in their exposing of the company. The ALF are used to highlight that these organisations are often more focused on the thrill of being counter-culture and taking down oppressive systems, rather than on the rights of individual animals: and as such an interesting comparison can be drawn between the Mirando Corporation and the ALF as two western parties imposing their ideologies and beliefs into the politic realms of non-western nations and their people. Particularly in that for Mija, her primary concern is saving her companion Okja, and an argument could be made that she doesn’t necessarily care for the rights of all super pigs to the same extent.
Of course the film isn’t all animal rights activism and environmentalism, one of OKJA’s biggest strengths lies in Mija as a character. Mija’s fearlessness and fierce devotion to saving her friend challenges a lot of historical tropes concerning women in film, children in film, and East-Asian communities in Western film. Having such a young, passionate character at the forefront of the film challenges the historical subservience of East-Asian women in film, and simultaneously challenges the notions that individuals who don’t understand English are less intelligent or aware. I strongly doubt the film would be as strong without Mija as a character.
While OKJA didn’t necessarily open up my eyes to the horrors of an industrialised meat industry, it is a powerful parody of contemporary interactions between our western society and the level of empathy we have towards animals we consume. However, if you’ve ever found yourself asking your vegan or vegetarian friends why they hate meat, I’d definitely recommend you give OKJA a watch and challenge your perceptions a little.