Note: Spoilers ahead
Not since the 1995 film Babe has a fictional film pig been able to make audiences more sympathetic to the cause of animals than in Bong Joon-ho's latest Netflix feature Okja. In Babe, however, it was an amalgamation of a real pig and animatronics. Here, it's a giant CGI superpig.
As a vegan myself, I've found that it's not often that vegans or the animal rights movement are depicted in the mainstream. And when we are, we're usually there for comic relief. Remember Todd Ingram in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or Ron Dunn from Parks and Recreation? They were caricatures that were put up against the protagonists, never given centre stage. Don't get me wrong, I'm big on self-deprecating humour. But what bothers me is that the crux – in this case, compassion towards animals – is almost always lost on people.
Which is why I was absolutely delighted to watch Okja. It's a film that gets the cause right. Mirando Corporation, a multinational agrochemical company has successfully created genetically modified superpigs that they claim will revolutionize the meat industry. A contest is announced. 26 superpigs are sent to different countries with local farmers tending to them in their traditional ways. After 10 years, one is to be crowned Best Superpig. The film centers on one of these superpigs – Okja.
Okja shares a deep bond with her caretaker's granddaughter Mija – they play together and roam the mountains. The plot thickens when at the end of the 10-year period Okja is selected as the winner and flown down to New York to serve the purpose she was created for – to be food.
The film does a fantastic job at critiquing and satirizing modern day commercialization as well as our large-scale apathy towards animals. In my personal vegan opinion, here are some reasons why the film gets the movement absolutely bang on:
A major reason why meat-eating is still the dominant culture is because corporations romanticize their products. Think KFC, McDonald's and Burger King. It takes slaughterhouse videos and undercover investigations for us to see how our food is produced. Consumers, having no real knowledge of the cruelty they fund, continue to consume these products, without any guilt.
Okja comments on this beautifully. The Superpig contest is nothing but a PR exercise intended on boosting sales and painting the people at Mirando as the good guys. The superpigs are marketed to be organic, non-GMO and better for the environment. Mirando even hires a celebrity zoologist and veterinarian Johnny Wilcox, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, to be the face of their brand. As the film progresses, we are taken behind the closed doors and made aware of the many facts that are being conveniently left out. Obviously, they are not pleasant.
In the film, Mija is approached by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The ALF (much like the actual group) are a bunch of animal lovers who rescue them from slaughter and providing them with better lives through rehabilitation. They also cause financial damage to corporations that profit from animal exploitation. They follow only one credo – they cause no harm to any animals, human or non-human.
Many real-world organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Greenpeace and the ALF often resort to extreme actions and as a result are branded 'eco-terrorists'. The film never paints us a black-and-white picture of these individuals. While we're quite sure of the urgency to act, would we endorse the ways of such organizations? Is it right for the ALF to place one life in danger even if that may save many more? Is there no peaceful way of changing things?
Towards the end of the film, we see thousands, probably millions of superpigs like Okja being imprisoned in confined areas. They will be sent to slaughter. The pigs howl and scream but their destiny is sealed. The demand for their meat is just too high. And money does run the world.
This particular scene is excruciatingly difficult to watch. Over the film, we come to know and love Okja. A connection is formed with the innocent, loving creature. And when we know of the fate of the other animals just like her, we feel desolation and despair. We feel hopeless. We wish they could be helped. But alas, some forces are too big to take down.
What is speciesism? Discrimination of beings based solely on their species. Over the film, we come to love this CGI superpig – a fictional animal. Why is it then, that we fail to feel the same way towards real-life beings? The film holds a mirror to our own hypocrisy.
If we're disturbed by the sight of the factory farm in the film and the abuse and oppression of innocent animals like Okja, why then do we continue to pay individuals/corporations to exploit beings just like them?
From an animal rights perspective, Okja is a seminal film. Activists often urge people to sensitize themselves on animal exploitation by watching documentaries like Earthlings and Cowspiracy. It doesn't always work. That may be because these films are too graphic or because some people would rather stay uninformed. The emotional connection doesn't exist.
Okja may solve this problem. If you can feel empathy towards a made-up imaginary creature, what's stopping you from feeling the same way about real sentient beings? Apart from being a telling satire, the film is, at its core, a call to align one's actions with one's morals. So will you?
Watch the trailer of Okja here: