“I’m an animal lover, everybody knows that about me.”
Working on the beloved show ‘Magical Animals’ Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic Dr. Johnny Wilcox represents a heightened version of each and every celebrity ‘animal lover’ in popular culture throughout Bong Joon-ho’s surprisingly sharp capitalist satire, Okja. Lodged somewhere between the identity of Steve Irwin and Elon Musk, Wilcox is the face of the Mirando Corporation, a billion dollar meat production company looking to profit on a new kind of high-yielding ‘superpig’.
Never has a villain, or a group of villains, felt so hauntingly real as they do in Joon-ho’s Netflix phenomenon, causing rifts among the industry elite in 2017 when it appeared at the Cannes Film Festival due to its ‘lesser’ streaming platform identity. Nominated for a Palme d’Or, however, it was the context of Okja’s story that made it such a powerful movie, daring to confront what climate activists have been discussing for years.
With a short history of socio-political satire, following the release of the blatant evaluation of the class system in 2013s Snowpiercer, the provocative material of Joon-ho’s Okja is no surprise, poking fun at the hypocrisy of modern food industry practices as well as our ideological attitude towards eating animals. For, in the background of this pop crime-drama, is the story of a young girl’s relationship with her pet, exploring how this familial relationship comes into conflict with a world that sees the animal as mere property.
Risking her own livelihood and the safety of her family, the young girl Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) travels across the world to prevent the Mirando Corporation from turning her friend, a supersize pig with the ears of a giant Beagle, into food. Crossing paths with Tilda Swinton’s pantomime villain Lucy Mirando, as well as the admittedly sanctimonious climate activist Jay (Paul Dano), most of the tale is something of a magical fairytale, with the damsel in distress being the pig, Okja, and Mija being its knight in shining armour.
This takes a sharp turn in the final act, however, as Joon-ho removes the facade before our eyes and reveals to us the true horror behind this fantasty, one of ragdoll bodies, swinging carcasses and packaged sausages, steaks and sirloins. Where much of the story had stayed clear of the profitable intentions behind herding such animals, the film’s final sequence, which takes Mija through a meat processing plant like it’s the depths of hell, exposes the fact that the morality of eating meat is as much a hypocritical fantasy as Joon-ho’s science fiction tall-tale.
As Okja efficiently proves to illustrate, animals are individuals in and of themselves, not the sausages, beef jerky and burgers that we see on our supermarket shelves. By using such a victim as the titular character, Joon-ho removes the pig from the pork and the cow from the beef, asking the audience to question their relationship with the animals they claim to be a protector and ‘lover’ of.
Visiting a slaughterhouse as part of his research for the film, the filmmaker spoke of the “trauma” of such an experience, stating, “It’s incredibly shocking. In actuality, I couldn’t even get one-tenth of the detail of the real slaughterhouse into the film. It was such an overwhelming and traumatic experience”.
Indeed, as Joon-ho accurately reflects, the meat production industry has been developed as a product of immoral innovation, explaining, “You can’t help but think that this relationship between man and animal hasn’t been like this—this must have been a very recent endeavour where only under the capitalist regime we put animals through all this”. Just as the Mirando Corporation of the Netflix movie skew a myth that eating meat is a moral imperative, in real life a similar myth has been created that tells us that meat is an indelible part of national identity, a staple of Sunday roasts, Christmas dinner, BBQ’s and much more.
Though, when dogs and cats are treated as ‘family’ and pigs and cows are seen as ‘property’ one has to accept moral hypocrisy, with Joon-ho taking aim at an industry that abandons ethics and welfare for profit.
“What I do find problematic and what I do want to take a jab at is how humans include animals in this mass-production system in the capitalistic era,” the South Korean filmmaker adds. But, with the production line of plastic products and fast-fashion having long been criticised for exasperating the climate crisis, it’s time for meat production to be considered in the very same category.
In fact, it should be considered in a severely detrimental category of its own, with meat production accounting for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gases from food production. Consider further that the global production of food is responsible for a third of all planet-heating gases and it will become clear that the fantastical super-pig adventure of Okja is closer to the reality of modern life than we realise.