© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
Released on Netflix after a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (before Netflix films were banned from competition at that festival), Okja is an unusual science fiction satire that specifically deals with the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food industry, though its commentary can easily be extended to the unscrupulous practices of the meat industry in general and even to the greed of capitalism as a whole. Given the subject matter, it is no surprise that Okja contains some rather grim, even gruesome material. What is perhaps surprising, though, is that the film also contains some rather over-the-top humor in its satire of the marketing strategies of the meatpacking industry—as well as in its spoof of the animal rights activists who oppose that industry. It is, in fact, this mixture of modes that makes of Okja a rather complex film, despite the fact that it relates a fairly straightforward narrative.
In her review of the film for Film Quarterly, Claudia Gorbman begins by noting the mixed nature of the film:
“Okja (2017) hops across genres and moods. Part Lassie Come Home (Fred M. Wilcox, 1943) with a girl and her giant pig instead of a boy and his loyal dog; part Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985), also a comic and nightmarish sci-fi; part Capitalism, a Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009) for its lessons in greed, with Tilda Swinton playing twin heads of a transnational biotech corporation; it pleads a serious case for animal rights and vegetarianism as well.”
Gorbman then goes on, in a glowing review, to focus especially on Bong’s ingenious and unusually effective use of music to support the other elements of the film—though those elements are themselves so striking that (as Gorbman herself acknowledges) many viewers probably won’t even notice the music.
The film begins as Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the new CEO of the evil Mirando Corporation (a fairly transparent stand-in for Monsanto, company that has been embroiled in controversies in recent years) conducts a flashy news conference that is reminiscent of the annual new product announcements made famous by the Apple Corporation during the era of Steve Jobs, containing as much showmanship as substance. There is, however, some real substance in this case: Lucy announces that Mirando has “miraculously discovered” a “super piglet” on a Chilean farm that she believes can be an environmentally-friendly cure for world hunger. They have taken the super piglet back to the Mirando Ranch in Arizona, where it has been lovingly raised and then bred, producing a total of twenty-six new miracle piglets by “nonforced, natural mating.” These piglets will be the focus of the next phase of their “super pig” project. In particular, Lucy announces that each of these 26 piglets will be sent to a local farm in one of the 26 countries in which the Mirando Corporation has offices. Each of the 26 piglets will be raised for ten years using “traditional techniques unique to their respective cultures.” At the end of that time, one of the piglets will be chosen as the “Best Super Pig,” while the group as a whole will begin breeding toward the production of a whole new species of super pigs that will revolutionize the food industry.
Lucy’s over-the-top performance already announces the element of satire that runs through the film. Her attempt to project sunny optimism verges on the desperate, suggesting a dark underside. Meanwhile, at this point in her presentation, she introduces the new “face” of Mirando Coporation, media personality Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), the host of the animal-oriented television program Dr. Johnny’s Magical Animals. Wilcox will spearhead the super pig project, helping to keep it in the public consciousness over the next ten years. Gyllenhaal plays the character with an excessive and hilarious zeal that makes Lucy seem restrained in comparison. The performance is pure satire, of course, aimed both at the extreme nature of much contemporary American hucksterism and at certain contemporary media personalities. In addition, Gyllenhaal’s performance calls attention to the meretricious nature of the entire super pig project. The pigs have, of course, not been miraculously discovered; they have been genetically engineered by Mirando in order to maximize their profits, but the company does not want to admit this fact because they know that consumers are wary of GMO foods. In addition, the Best Super Pig competition is simply an extension of this charade. As the 26 prototype super pigs are growing to maturity in idyllic natural conditions, Mirando is already raising super pigs en masse in dismal, factory-like conditions, ready to put them into mass production as soon as the fake contest is over.
The main plot of the film kicks into gear ten years after this introductory scene, as we meet the eponymous Okja, a super pig that has been raised to maturity in beautiful surroundings in the remote mountains of South Korea, where she lives as a beloved companion to a young Korean girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), who has lived with Okja and her grandfather during this time. The opening scenes establish the close and loving relationship between Mija and Okja, which helps to set the emotional tone for the film and to make Mija and Okja the center of audience identification. Okja also appears to be quite intelligent and even heroic—courageously (and very cleverly) saving Mija when she nearly falls to her death from a cliff (while Okja nearly sacrifices herself in the process).
Okja, more the size of an extra-large hippo than an ordinary pig, is rendered in CGI, of course, and is made to look playful and lovable, completely unthreatening. She has predecessors among threatened pigs in film, of course, as in the case of the title character in Babe (1995) or Wilbur, the pig in the 2006 film adaptation of the children’s novel Charlotte’s Web. Both Wilbur and Babe, though are ordinary pigs, though Babe is played both by a real pig and animatronic substitutes, while Wilbur is electronically enhanced to seemingly have the ability to speak. Okja cannot actually speak, but he does seem to have an unusual ability to communicate with Mija. Pigs are, of course, perfect choices for such films because they are routinely slaughtered for food and mostly, in fact, exist for that purpose. Yet they are highly intelligent mammals that call into question the typical practice of considering some animals (such as pigs) eligible for slaughter, while other animals (such as dogs and cats) are not eligible for slaughter. Okja, though, quite clearly establishes its title character as a companion animal with a bond to her human owner that is as strong and as legitimate as that between any cat or dog and their owner.
Meanwhile, his large, shambling size and overall look are less reminiscent of an ordinary pig than they are of the oversized title character in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated children’s classic My Neighbor Totoro (1988). He also partakes of a number of other misunderstood non-human protagonists, such as Steven Spielberg’s E. T., placing him in a very familiar cinematic tradition. Babe, Wilbur, Totoro, and E. T. all ultimately survive their films,—which perhaps makes those films more suitable for children—and it is probably no surprise that Okja survives as well. Much of the material in Okja, however, makes it a film that is most decidedly not suitable for children. Indeed, one of the interpretive problems posed by Okja is the question of just what kind of film it actually is. At times, it does seem like heartwarming children’s fare, but a number of scenes of animal cruelty, including the graphic slaughter of some of Okja’s fellow super pigs, take the film into decidedly grim, adult territory, while a number of the broadly comic scenes seem aimed at adults as well, especially given that they tend to be laced with profanity, while making satirical points that address very adult issues.
Okja, of course, will be the winner of the Best Super Pig contest, as well as the focus of the rest of the plot of the film. Much to Mija’s chagrin, Okja is then whisked away to Seoul to prepare for shipment to New York to be crowned the winner in a media spectacle designed to kick off the real marketing campaign for meat products derived from the super pigs. Mija, who had been given the impression that her grandfather had bought Okja from Mirando, determines to rescues her friend, following him to Seoul, where she attempts to break into the Mirando facilities there. In the meantime, her rescue attempts are complicated by the fact that members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a radical animal rights group, also come to Seoul to try to rescue the giant pig.
The representation of the ALF adds considerable complexity to Okja, which seems to sympathize with the organization’s basic goals, but which represents the members of the ALF as largely comical extremist caricatures, as ridiculous in their own way as Wilcox is in his. The scenes in which the ALF attempts to rescue Okja in Seoul also add generic and tonal complexity to the film, because (despite the fact that the organization’s efforts are largely spoofed in the film)these scenes of the attempted rescue constitute an extended action sequence, including a car-chase, one of the classic examples of action sequences in contemporary film.
Ultimately, the ALF operatives plant a surveillance device on Okja, then allow the pig to be taken into custody and shipped on to New York. Their hope is that this move will provide the evidence they need to reveal to the world that the warm and fuzzy face being put on the super pig program by Mirando is a ruse and that the company is interested in nothing but making as much money as possible, even at the expense of raising the upper pigs in grim, inhumane, factory-like conditions, so that they can be harvested as efficiently as possible, maximizing corporate profits. But the ALF operatives are not entirely honest, either. K (Steven Yeun), the only one of them who speaks Korean—and thus the only one who can communicate with Mija—tells the others that the girl has endorsed the plan to use Okja in this way, even though she has, in fact, starkly refused to do so. K will later be expelled from the ALF for this act (though only termporarily), but this action does little to repair the overall image of the organization as it is presented in the film. Indeed, the scene in which Jay (Paul Dano), the ALF leader, beats the crap out of K for this infraction is largely undermined when Jay explains his fury not in terms of sympathy for Okja but in terms of the fact that “translation is sacred,” as if the offense has been committed against translation itself.
The action next moves to New York where Morando has announced a giant media spectacle to announce the commercial launch of super-pig meat products, apparently assuming that, if they do it with enough razzle-dazzle fanfare, no one will notice that it really doesn’t make sense that they could go commercial with super-pig meat immediately upon the completion of the pilot super-pig-raising program. Meanwhile, the true horrors of this film begin when Mirando gets poor Okja back into the grim dungeons of its New York headquarters and begins to subject her to a series of gruesome experiments that make clear just how little they care about the animal’s welfare.
Okja has already been handled rather roughly by the corporate lackeys who have wrangled her back to New York. Now, once she is in their lair, the real nightmares begin. With the members of the ALF looking on via their surveillance device, Wilcox himself, supported by handlers with cattle prods that they seem to relish using, orchestrates the forcible mating of Okja with Alfonso, another super pig chosen especially for the purpose. This instance of what is essentially rape makes little contribution to the actual goals of the Mirando Corporation and demonstrates just how cruel and vicious they can be, visiting unnecessary suffering on the terrified Okja simply because they can. On the other hand, this forced mating also makes another satirical point, because the entire meat industry depends upon the forced mating of farm animals—living, feeling creatures who are forced to create offspring that will live in squalid and horrific conditions, only to be brought to slaughter under cruel and inhumane conditions.
Meanwhile, even Wilcox appears to be feeling remorse, drinking himself into near unconsciousness while he remains in the underground Mirando facility with Okja, weepingly declaring that “this is an unspeakable place.” Yet he then proceeds to drill into Okja’s flesh to extract core samples of meat for testing—much in the grotesque way that live cattle are tested in the real meat industry. He continues to weep as he bores into Okja’s flesh, extracting the samples. Mirando’s taste testers then eat the samples after cooking, declaring Okja’s meat to be the “best of the best.” Lucy Mirando’s minions, in the meantime, attempt to bribe Mija into participating in their upcoming event introducing Okja to the world, promising that they will give Okja back to her if she cooperates. They’re lying, of course, though Mija will eventually procure Okja’s release (in a not very believable deus-ex-machina turn) by buying her back from Mirando’s new CEO, Lucy’s less bouncy and more openly ruthless twin sister Nancy (also played by Swinton), thus speaking the only language that Nancy understands.
The cruel treatment of Okja in New York again makes no sense: Okja is, after all, a poster pig for the entire super-pig project, so it might make sense to treat her with kid gloves, especially as none of the horrors to which she is subjected are necessary in order for the project to go forward. The point seems to be to show just how vicious Mirando and other corporations can be in pursuing there ends—to the point where they visit pain and suffering on others even when it is unnecessary and gains them nothing. But, of course, it is necessary to the impact of the film that Okja be mistreated in this way because the audience has already been conditioned to have an emotional investment in her fate, making what is done to her all the more powerfully affecting.
This seemingly happy turn is indicative of just how strangely mixed Okja really is. Not only does it satirize both the capitalists and the activists (as well as both corporations and consumers, but it also contains a strange, postmodern mixture of tones. Partly a grim, depressing (and very adult) satire of the meatpacking industry, it is also a sweet, heartwarming children’s film about a young girl being reunited with her loveable pet. And this part of the film is made even cheerier by the fact that Okja manages to smuggle out a baby super pig by carrying it in her mouth. We are then treated to one final scene of pastoral beauty back in Korea as Mija, Okja, and the cute, playful baby frolic happy back in the idyllic environment of Mija’s grandfather’s farm.
It’s a lovely, inspiring, fairy-tale ending. The only problem, of course, is the fact that it ignores all those super pigs who were left back in New York to undergo mass slaughter in support of the rollout of Mirando’s new line of super pig meats. The ALF continues the battle against Mirando (in a post-credit sequence, we see Jay getting out after a prison term for his previous anti-Mirando activities, then immediately rejoining the group in another planned attack on the corporation). There is, however, little indication that they will be any more successful than before. People continue to eat meat, corporations continue to torture and kill animals to feed that appetite, and the environment continues to decay as a result of it all. As far as we know, the meat industry in general and the super-pig program in general march on.
I personally found the Korean ending of the film problematic, given the mass slaughter being undergone by other super pigs back in the U.S. One could argue, however, that this mixed ending is actually quite effective, with the final idyllic Korean scene making what is going on in New York seem all the more barbaric and horrifying in contrast. One is also tempted to read the ending of the film as a bit of self-commentary, reflecting Bong’s hope that he has managed to rescue at least this film from the mass-produced sameness of the entertainment industry as a whole, while the rest of the industry continues cranking out interchangeable bland products for hungry consumers.
However one reads the ending of the film, one thing for certain is that the entire meat industry is one of the most shameful scandals of modern civilization. As early as 1898, in his pioneering science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells depicts Martian invaders who have come to earth to drain humans of their blood, which they then inject directly into their own veins as sustenance. But then he has his narrator point out that this practice is really no more horrifying or barbaric than the human practice of eating the meat of defenseless animals, such as rabbits. And, of course, one of the founding works of modern American political fiction was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), which caused a sensation with its revelation of the nightmarish conditions that prevail in America’s meat-packing plants. Sinclair’s main sympathies, of course, were with the exploited human workers in those plants, rather than with the animals, but it is hard to read his novel without realizing the abuses that are visited upon those animals as well.
In more recent years, we have come more and more to understand the horrors that are visited upon animals within the meat industry; even those who would endorse the killing and eating of animals have often found it difficult to accept the kind of treatment received by animals in this industry, which is, of course, designed to minimize the cost of raising, then killing animals rather than to minimize the suffering undergone by the animals in that process. By making Okja the center of the film (and by making her so loveable and intelligent), Bong shifts the focus to the experience of the animals. And by including graphic scenes of mistreatment of Okja and of the slaughter of her fellow super pigs, this film can be very powerful in its representation of animal abuse. Similarly, by making especially clear the ruthless and cynical way that the Mirando Corporation is willing to abuse animals (while trying to present themselves to the public as pioneers in the humane treatment of animals), Okja is unusually precise in its identification of the quest for capitalist profit as the driving force for this animal abuse. And, finally, Okja is particularly effective in its takedown of the spectacle-based marketing practices that are so effective at covering up the real nature of the operations of the Mirando Corporation.
The satirical thrust of Okja is clear enough that, whatever complexities the film might have, its message is violently anticapitalist. There are, however, a number of aspects of Okja that somewhat dilute the power of its satire—though one could also argue that, without these mitigating elements, the film would be almost unbearably unpleasant to watch, given that the satire of the film—however much it is presented in science fictional terms—hits a bit too close to home. After all, the operations of the Mirando Corporation, however extreme they might at first appear, are not really that far from those of Monsanto and other unscrupulous corporations involved in various agro-industries. In any case, the film’s heavy use of humor, its largely negative depiction of the ALF, and its individualist focus on Okja (as opposed to the masses of other super pigs that are being slaughtered in the film), all would seem to lessen the impact of its satire.
The comically extreme performances of Gyllenhaal as Wilcox and of Swinton as the Mirando sisters seem a bit out of tune with the true evils these characters are perpetrating, though such jarring mixtures might also be perceived as Brechtian strategies of estrangement, designed to stimulate critical thought. Moreover, Swinton’s happy-happy presentation of the super-pig program in her Lucy persona is a rather effective sendup of corporate showmanship, because it is actually only a very slight exaggeration. Moreover, Bong has Lucy herself call attention to one problem with the meat industry that the film otherwise chooses largely to ignore: the fact that raising animals for food is extremely bad for the environment and is making a major contribution to global climate change. Part of Lucy’s sales pitch is that Mirando is committed to solving this problem and that a major motivation behind their pursuit of the super pig program is that the super pigs will be much more environmentally friendly than are conventional pigs. We’re not really given the information to judge whether the super pigs really do have a much smaller carbon footprint than do regular pigs, but everything that we see of Mirando’s operation leads us to doubt it. Perhaps Bong should have pursued this point a bit further and a bit more clearly, just as he might perhaps have done more to make clear that, while human beings do need food, world hunger is actually made worse by the eating of meat, not better.
Meanwhile, Okja’s representation of the ALF as a bumbling group of zealots seems a bit less than useful in terms of the film’s critique of the meat industry. The film does seem to suggest that the members of the ALF mean well in their efforts to combat the cruel and unscrupulous operations of the meat industry. But it does not depict these efforts as being very effective. For one thing, it is not clear that the members of ALF are devoted to saving animals as much as they are to boosting their own egos and feeling good about themselves. For another, while the ALF presents itself essentially as a sort of paramilitary operation, they are clearly no match for the “Black Chalk” security forces deployed by Mirando. In fact, the ALF accomplishes essentially nothing in the course of the film except to ensure that Okja will be successfully taken to Mirando’s nightmarish New York facility. Thus, while Okja is saved, she is saved strictly through the efforts of Mija—and through the capitalist expedient of a simple purchase.
Acquier explains the representation of the ALF by arguing that the film is structured around an opposition between nature (Okja and Mija) and culture (everything they encounter after they leave the mountains of Korea). Both Mirando and the ALF represent culture and are thus suspect:
“A welcome surprise in the movie is that functional stupidity is not confined to the company. In the movie, all organizations—corporations, media companies and NGOs—are equally plagued by functional stupidity. Even the organized groups fighting against the excesses of the technical” (525–26).
Whether this surprise is welcome or not is highly debatable. I personally found it a highly disappointing move that does at least threaten to dilute the message of the film. I also think that picturing the film as based on an opposition between the corruption of culture and the innocence of nature largely misses the point of the film’s central satirical thrust against the evils committed by the meat industry in the interest of profit-making. In any case, though, Okja obviously does invite a number of different possible responses and offers itself as a starting point for the discussion of a number of important issues.
Acquier, Aurélian. “Okja Meets Ellul: Nature, Culture, and Life in ihe Iron Cage of the Technical System.” M@n@gement 22.3 (2019): 520–529.
Gorbman, Claudia. “Bong’s Song.” Film Quarterly (Spring 2018): 21–26.
Gunawan, Michelle. “Navigating Human and Non-Human Animal Relations: Okja, Foucault and Animal Welfare Laws.” Alternative Law Journal 43.4 (2018): 263–68.
Rehn, Alf. “The Curious Case of Children and the Corporation: Capitalism, Corruption and Contested Childhoods in Okja.” M@n@gement 22.3 (2019): 530–36.
 See Gunawan for a discussion of this film within the conet of legal theory as applied to the treatment of animals. Gunawan concludes that “by drawing on the experiences of the main character in the film Okja, a hybrid animal who navigates human constructions and subjectivities, this article seeks to disrupt standard thinking about the categorisation of non-human animals. As a close jurisprudential reading shows, Okja’s subjectivities throughout the film confuse and problematize the law’s categorisation of animals as legal subjects, as well as the way the law distinguishes between particular ‘types’ of animal (companion and farm)” (268).
 Nancy has wrested control of the corporation back from Lucy with the help of Lucy’s own lieutenant, Frank Dawson (Giancarlo Esposito). This motif makes clear just how ruthless and self-serving are the principals of the corporation, willing even to stab each other in the back for their own gain.
 On the other hand, Alf Rehn has suggested that the film offers certain helpful messages to capitalist corporations. In particular, focusing on Mija rather than Okja, he suggests that the film suggests that perhaps corporations should take children more seriously as subjects rather than simply dismissing them as foreign to the serious world of business.
 These forces would appear to be a stand-in for the famously unethical Blackwater private military company of the real world, linking Mirando with even more corrupt activities.