Okja, from director Bong Joon-Ho and now available to stream on Netflix, is the latest attempt to entertain while asking viewers to consider and, perhaps, rethink a fundamental aspect of their daily lives.
Between February and August 1905, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle as a serialized novel in the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, hoping to expose the ugly side of America’s mass-market meat industry and change the system. And now, a century later, Joon-Ho’s film is garnering buzz as a modern plea for humanity to take a harder look Big Meat.
Starring 13-year-old South Korean actress Ahn Seo-hyun (along with Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal), Okja premiered at the famous Cannes Film Festival in May. After technical difficulties drew some boos at a press screening, the movie got a solid four-minute standing ovation following its public debut. Not bad for Netflix’s first-ever entry at the festival.
Readers of Okja’s press clippings could easily be convinced that it’s going to turn the meat industry on its head. Joon-Ho’s research included a visit to a Colorado slaughterhouse, an experience that left him shunning animal protein for two months. Some of the chatter surrounding the movie’s release suggests that Okja may convert a generation of omnivores into bleeding-heart vegans who worship at the altar of PETA.
Okja’s opening scene is a press conference set in 2007. Lucy Mirando (Swinton), the bubbly chief executive of her family’s Mirando Corporation, is explaining to the assembled media how the company has discovered a new breed of pig, a super pig. The company has bred 26 of these supposedly all-natural, GMO-free critters and plans to send them to partnering farms around the world to see which environment suits them best. In 10 years, the most impressive super pig, as determined by a Steve Irwin-esque TV zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal), will be introduced to the world at a best super pig party in New York City. Mirando says it will be a sustainable protein source that will help feed Earth’s rapidly increasing population, and, most importantly, it will “taste fucking good.”
Fast-forward a decade, and Mija (Seo-hyun) is frolicking through the wilderness with Okja, the super pig she and her grandfather have been raising in the South Korean mountains. The pig resembles a hippopotamus, only cuter, and it behaves like a cheerful labrador retriever. It’s adorable. Mija is under the impression her father has bought Okja from the Mirando Corporation, but after an impressed Dr. Johnny determines the animal is, in fact the best super pig, he and his Mirando colleagues take Okja away while Mija’s deceitful guardian distracts his granddaughter. The remainder of the film is a mostly family-friendly thriller in which Mija, with the aid of the radical Animal Liberation Front, attempts to rescue Okja. The darkest moments occur at a super pig slaughterhouse, scenes inspired by Joon-Ho’s real-life visit to a bovine abattoir.
Based on his dietary reaction to researching the film, Joon-Ho was obviously disturbed by the conditions he found in America’s commercial beef industry. To his credit, the director did not make a propaganda film. There are good and bad people on both sides of the fight. Mirando is attempting to put a positive PR spin on what is actually a grisly business, but her company is doing its part to prevent a global food shortage, which would be catastrophic. The ALF wants to free animals from the food chain, but, as viewers discover, its methods are not always respectable. Mija and her super pig are the sentimental rooting interests in this story, but it’s more complicated than “animals are good, and eating them is bad.”
Identifying Okja as the catalyst for a worldwide adoption of veganism is a nice idea for those who abhor meat consumption, but it isn’t realistic. It’s no secret that corporate farms and slaughterhouses are ugly places, but billions of people regularly chow down on beef, pork, and poultry anyway. Even Joon-Ho, who watched a number of documentaries on the subject and forced himself to tour a slaughterhouse, couldn’t stay away.
“Then I flew back to South Korea, and you know, Korea is a barbecue paradise,” the director said following one screening. “Every street on every corner is burning meat. I slowly, slowly came back to being a meat-eater.”
Viewers are having similar reactions. “I also stopped eating meat (for a couple of days) after seeing Okja,” Amil Niazi writes for Vice. “The impact is real.” The impact is real, but it is not permanent for everyone.
Co-writer Jon Ronson says he expects it will be teenagers who make lifestyle adjustments in response to the film, and this is indeed Okja’s best chance to make significant change. “I think there’s a whole load of 16-year-olds who don’t realize where their food comes from or don’t realize that within five weeks time they’re going to be vegetarian,” Ronson tells The Hollywood Reporter. Youthful idealism is often what leads to major societal shifts. But, teenagers can be easily distracted, and food companies are working hard on the distractions. Trends that are picked up by adolescents come and go with rapidity.
In the early 20th century, The Jungle captivated its audience and changed America’s slaughterhouses at a time when the competition for a nation’s attention span was much smaller. Today, there is so much content served across so many mediums, it’s nearly impossible to make a dent in the available entertainment options. Great movies and TV shows — not to mention books — can easily go unnoticed by the population at large. “Hey, have you seen Okja?” one might ask. “No, I have to catch up on 800 hours of Game of Thrones and Glow and House of Cards and Bloodlineand Master of None and Twin Peaks,” might be the response.
While Netflix itself offers alternatives galore that can take eyeballs away from Okja in the short term, the film’s home on the streaming platform could prove to be a boon over time. Netflix isn’t removing one of its own titles anytime soon, so interested parties may eventually get to its place in their queue. In the old days, missing a theatrical release meant a trip to the video store was required to see the movie. Now, all it takes is a few clicks of the remote.
Okja is a nice movie. Its impact in the immediate future is likely overhyped, but maybe it will become a growing influence over time. Whether bigwigs at modern meat companies should worry remains to be seen.