A Vegan’s Take on Okja

Before seeing Bong Joon-ho’s film Okja, produced by Netflix, I didn’t know what a potential game-changer it might be for the vegan cause. I’d heard a little here and there about the film, knew it was a part Korean, part American sci-fi film centered around a girl and a genetically-modified pig-like animal and that it involved a struggle between a vigilante animal rights group and Big Ag. I held off on watching it at first, because I was concerned that they might misrepresent animal rights activists [which it turned out they kind of did to a certain extent], but finally gave in and saw it at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin theater because it was getting so much press. At that point it was already available on Netflix, but there’s something immersive about being in a darkened theater with a big screen, as well as the group energy you get when watching it as part of an audience. However, I realize most will wind up watching Okja at home which is just as well, because if the film hadn’t been made readily available on Netflix, perhaps not as many people would have seen it.

Synopsis

The basic premise of the film is as follows: a large multinational agricultural / biotech company called Mirando Corporation (clearly a nod to Monsanto) pioneers the creation of a “super-pig,” ostensibly first discovered in Chile. CEO Lucy Mirando, played by Tilda Swinton, affably explains the production of super-pig meat will have a minimal footprint and “taste f*ing” good,” noting that it will take 10 years to bring the meat to market.

As part of a PR blitz, Mirando Corp creates a competition in which it distributes 26 of its “super-piglets” around the world to be raised by indigenous farmers, with one to be crowned as the winner 10 years later. Enter Okja. Raised by a young orphan named Mija and her farmer grandfather in the remote mountains of South Korea, Okja grows into a happy and adventurous super-pig who shares an unbreakable bond with Mija.

When the 10 years are up, Mirando Corp’s celebrity spokesperson Dr. Johnny Wilcox (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) comes by to pose alongside Mija and her grandfather and take Okja back to the states. Mija doesn’t understand what Mirando Corp’s intentions are until after a walk with her grandfather, she realizes Okja’s gone. Heartbroken and outraged, Mija sets out to find Okja and bring her home. She leaves the mountains for Seoul, and in her efforts to free Okja, manages to create a PR nightmare for Mirando Corp. Along the way, she encounters an animal activist group called the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), whose motives run somewhat counter to her own. What follows is an epic adventure that succeeds in conveying pretty much everything that is wrong with factory farming.

In this post, I’ll share some thoughts I had during and after I watched it, through a vegan lens. Please know that when I say *a* vegan, I don’t presume to speak for all vegans – just to relate my own experience. I realize that some vegans object to this film because it doesn’t convey a clear, abolitionist message, while others are rejoicing over it. My own reaction was more on the positive side, but as you will see I don’t necessarily agree with everything in the film.

Who is Okja?

Towards the beginning of the film, we see Okja and Mija exploring the forest and mountains together, having fun, whimsical adventures. Okja is portrayed as curious, playful, and humorous; someone who revels in the joys of being alive. But when the pair have a misadventure while taking a shortcut back home, we get to see the depth of Okja’s true character. Mija suggests they skirt along the ledge of a cliff with an incredibly steep drop-off, and while tethering Okja, she stumbles and starts to free-fall down. Okja manages to catch the rope with her foot, but is unable to lift her back up. Strategizing, she realizes her best option to save Mija is to run along the ledge, secure Mija on a safe spot, and fall off the cliff herself. It is in this moment we realize just how much she loves Mija and how far she would go to protect her.

When TV zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox comes along to appraise Okja, we see a complex range of emotions played out in her eyes: a tension between friendliness, goodwill, wariness, and confusion. After she’s abducted, Okja’s desperation and misery is palpable.

Thus, the film clearly establishes Okja as someone, not something. We see that she has her own individual personality, and that she’s capable of experiencing the same kinds of feelings as we humans.

What’s Okja’ value?

One theme the film explores is the various ways in which Okja’s value is perceived:

To Mija, Okja is a family member, companion, best friend, protector. Mija cannot conceive of life without Okja, which is why when her grandfather presents her with a gold pig statue as a proposed substitute, she’s confused, then outraged.

Before Mija leaves, setting out to find her abducted companion, her grandfather draws over an image of Okja, delineating her various body parts and labelling them as meat products. “Blade shoulder! Loin! Spare rib! Hock,” he says. “This is what will happen to her. This is Okja’s fate. Fate!” Horrified, Mija flees.

Okja’s grandfather’s response signifies to a certain extent the cultural indoctrination all of us underwent. We were raised by our parents and elders – who were well-meaning, but ignorant nonetheless – to reduce animals to food or whatever way in which we perceive them as being able to serve us. Through their instruction, we learn to see them as things, not beings with a soul that experience the full spectrum of emotions that we do: joy, pleasure, comfort, frustration, pain, anguish.

But knowing Okja to be infinitely more than her perceived value as a slab of meat, Mija refuses to accept her grandfather’s reductionist take on the situation. She heads off, not knowing how she will track Okja and her captors down, and if it’s even possible; only that she will do everything in her power to find her, free her, and bring her home.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a bizarre zoologist

To Dr. Johnny Wilcox, the TV zoologist played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Okja is a curiosity to gawk at, fondle, and experiment with.

To the animal liberation from (ALF), Okja is a pawn in their overall scheme to expose animal cruelty. They are well-meaning, but they don’t value and appreciate Okja the way Mija does. If they did, they wouldn’t elect to use Okja as a means to get undercover footage, thereby subjecting her to the factory conditions and cruel experiments performed by Dr. Johnny Wilcox.

To the people who sample Okja’s meat, Okja’s value is measured by how good she tastes (delicious!). We sense that had they seen the conditions and circumstances in which her flesh was taken from her, they would have wanted nothing to do with her meat. However, Okja’s suffering is kept “out of sight, out of mind.” And so while it’s frustrating to see how much they relish eating her flesh, we have to remember that they are ignorant to the reality of where the meat came from.

To the corporation, Okja represents profit. Those at the top know what the conditions of their factory farm is and they choose not care because their loyalty lies with the company. For corporations, who have no soul and whose only social obligation is to make money, it is not possible to look at Okja with eyes of compassion. They strip her of any intrinsic value she may have and evaluate her purely in terms of what she can do to improve their bottom line.

Nature vs. modernity

In a nuanced way, the film alludes to the difference between nature and cities – namely the beauty, freedom, and nourishment that nature has to offer vs. the shallowness and clutter of consumer culture. We first see Okja and Mija against the exceptionally beautiful backdrop of the mountains in South Korea, where they are completely thriving in their element: free to roam, explore, and commune with nature. When Okja is freed from abduction with help from the ALF in Seoul, she must awkwardly careen through an underground shopping mall, stepping all over displays and meaningless objects on sale. Seeing Okja torn from her habitat and thrown into this unnatural and insultingly shallow setting, we feel an indignant urge to protect her from the ugliness that we consumers have helped to perpetuate.

Okja lumbering through an underground shopping mall

But Okja isn’t the only one who doesn’t fit into this artificial world; Mija has clearly been taken out of her ideal environment as well. For Mija, the trek down from the mountains into Seoul signifies the end of innocence for her. Up in the mountains she had been sheltered from consumer culture and harshness of city living; and now that she is exposed to it, she’s forced to confront the dark side of humanity.

On a more macro level, the theme of the incongruousness of animals and more indigenous people vs. city living makes us question if we ourselves, as humans living in modern society, belong in cities at all either, and to what extent have all the artificial man-made constructs we’ve created have had the effect of of fragmenting our psyches and cheapening our existence.

I was reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s quote: “All good things are wild and free.” For Okja and Mija, this is certainly the case.

GM animals

Okja combines the concepts of animal agribusiness and biotech companies into one giant evil corporation Mirando. The company’s name overtly hints at the biotech multinational Monsanto which has worked closely alongside animal agribusiness over the years, and has a tarnished reputation for meddling with nature, with disastrous consequences.

Monsanto and the animal agriculture industry have yet to create an entirely new species of livestock; however, they have genetically bred animals to have certain characteristics that are desirable to us and un-natural to them.

For instance: broiler chickens are bred to gain so much weight over such a short period of time that they are often crippled and unable to walk; cows are bred to produce so much milk that their udders become extremely heavy and they often develop a painful infection called mastitis; hens are bred to produce way more eggs than they ever would normally in nature, which is extremely taxing on their bodies, and so on…

And despite being Frankenstein-ish creations that never should have been brought into the world in the first place, they are still beings with the same desires that we have: to experience freedom, spend time in the outdoors, and to create social bonds.

In a sense, the one redemptive aspect of Okja’s creation is that she herself is a beautiful soul. That she is lovable isn’t a credit to Mirando Corp however – the company could care less – it simply reveals that no matter to what degree we “play God” with animals, they are still conscious, expansive beings that aren’t means to our ends, but ends in and of themselves.

ALF

What most people may not understand when watching the film is that the Animal Liberation Front Group (ALF), headed by a character played by Paul Dano is an actual group in real life. As shown in the film, they are loosely organized, mostly underground network of animal activists who carry out acts of corporate sabotage in order to free animals from acts of egregious cruelty. Because they often break the law, they’re willing to be imprisoned, sometimes for years at a time. As of right now they’re listed #1 Domestic Terrorist Organization by the FBI, which should seem unwarranted given that they are motivated purely by compassion and that they have never harmed anyone.

The ALF is an actual thing in real life

Usually the efforts of the ALF involve freeing animals from factory farms, laboratories, fur farms, and other places where animals are being exploited, as well obtaining undercover footage of egregious animal cruelty to share with the public. For those intrigued by the subject, you may enjoy the documentary ALF: Behind the Mask.

A more well-established group that has been accused of “eco-terrorism” is Sea Shepherd, known for being the subject of the Animal Planet series Whale Wars. Sea Shepherd focuses on protecting marine mammals, most notably whales, by basically hassling poachers.

Earlier on in my animal activism, I used to be a big fan of the ALF and single issue campaigns. However, in more recent years, I’ve shifted to a more abolitionist stance. Which is to say that I think as animal rights activists, we should focus our efforts on promoting veganism as the most important thing we can do to protect animals. To me, the abolitionist approach is more incisive and unequivocal, whereas single issue campaigns can spread misleading ideas – mainly that some forms of animal abuse are worse than others, and that some animals are more important than others, and therefore send a disorganized, somewhat wishy washy message

While I still think the ALF’s cause is noble, I find that their overall strategy is not very effective and also, that it helps to reinforce the image that our culture has of animal rights advocates as being “extremists.” Outside the theater in which I saw Okja, I overheard a woman say to someone else, “The animal liberationists were almost as bad as the corporate people.” While I thoroughly disagree with her, I think that as activists we have to keep in mind that for the vast majority of people in our culture, the concept of animal liberation is very foreign and unfamiliar. So even though for activists it may be easier to identify with the ALF members, for someone still caught up in the cultural conditioning that using animals as resources is okay, the ALF’s measures could seem violent, aggressive, and alienating.

Ultimately, as we see in the film, sharing undercover footage with the public, and isolated acts of liberation aren’t enough to shift our entire culture away from abusing animals. Animal exploitation is far more complex and entrenched than that. Actually helping to shift the cultural paradigm requires that activists embrace veganism themselves (not all ALF members are vegan by the way) and then promote veganism as the moral baseline using what Gary Francione calls “creative, nonviolent advocacy.” To learn more about Francine’s approach, you can check out his talk Veganism: The Moral Imperative.

Factory farming and the Holocaust

Some have remarked that the factory farming and slaughter scenes are reminiscent of the concentration camps. Indeed, there are connections between factory farming and the Holocaust – namely the fact that in both cases, helpless beings suffered under the control of those in power. Dr. Alex Hershaft, a Holocaust survivor, after visiting a slaughter house “saw a lot of analogies between what the Nazis did to us and what we’re doing to farm animals.” He became vegan, founded Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), and committed his life’s work to raising awareness about the oppression of animals.

Despite the striking similarities between factory farming and the Holocaust, they also have differences, obviously. The Holocaust involved human on human violence  in the name of eugenics; factory farming, human on non-human animal violence in the name of consumption. The Holocaust took place roughly over the course of four years in German-occupied Europe; factory farming has been practiced for roughly 100 years, is ongoing, and people all over the world participate in it (at least economically, via supply and demand).

Though it’s generally not discussed within our society, factory farming is an ongoing nightmare of epic proportions. More farmed animals are slaughtered each week (1.2 billion) than the total number of all humans killed in all wars throughout history. This is not to say that genocide is not heinous and tragic, or to diminish the suffering of the people who have been killed in war – just to point out that there is a whole other layer of darkness in our history and culture that most people aren’t aware of.

Not a vegan film

Okja definitely reinforces certain concepts behind the vegan agenda – namely that animals are sentient creatures who value their lives and freedom just as much as we do, that our using and exploiting them as resources as moral, ethical, and spiritual implications, and that factory farming is evil. However, it’s important to note that the film is not vegan. This becomes clear when we see that Mija, her grandfather and Okja eat fish and chicken, thereby implying that it’s okay to eat some animals and not others.

In a sense, I wasn’t bothered by this – because realistically, while a peasant diet in Korea would be made up predominantly of plant foods – rice, beans, and so forth, fish and chicken might constitute a very small part of it. On the other hand, when taken in the context of the film’s message, this does present a certain moral inconsistency. Vegans contend that sentience alone is the basis for compassion and which warrants our moral obligation not to use / abuse animals. Okja is more lovable than the fish and chicken because like us she’s a mammal, she’s smarter, she’s able to connect more deeply with Mija, and we can relate to her more. But the fact that we are more easily captivated by some animals doesn’t mean that it’s okay to also abuse the other animals that we have a harder time understanding. We may not know much about the mental and emotional experiences of fish or birds but we do know for sure that they are sentient and can suffer which is reason alone to leave them be.

For those curious about the complex inner lives of animals, you can watch animal scientist Jonathan Balcombe’s excellent talk Why Vegan, as well as his talk What a Fish Knows.

Performances

Tilda Swinton plays twin sisters with sibling rivalry, each trying to push the other out of their grandfather and father’s corporation, Mirando. Lucy Mirando is effervescent and bright-eyed, determined to paint Mirando Corp, which has had a history of PR fiascoes for poisoning the environment and killing people as a result, in a positive light. Her twin sister Nancy Mirando, by contrast, is a hardened cynic, who doesn’t really care about making the company “look good”; only about making it profitable.

Tilda Swinton as Nancy Mirando

I found it interesting that in this film, the characters Swinton played, have strikingly similar jobs to the character she played in Michael Clayton, an executive at a biotech company also guilty of corporate malfeasance. In this film, the characters are a little more personality-driven, though arguably the character she played in Michael Clayton was more complex in a subtle way. Regardless, she clearly excels in the role of being the face of a corrupt multinational.

Sea-Hyun Ahn, a 13-year old Korean actress gives a remarkable performance as Mija. Exuding a sense of inner strength and conviction that we see lacking in the elders who surround her, Mija embodies the archetype of a fierce heroine committed to truth and integrity. Propelled forward by her boundless love for Okja, she is an unlikely but formidable adversary to Mirando Corp.

Sea-Hyun Ahn as Mija

Okja is a CGI, brought in part to creation by Erik De Boer who made the tiger in Life of Pi. While she is characterized in the film as a “super-pig,” aesthetically, she’s really more a hybrid between pigs, hippos, elephants, and St. Bernards. Her appearance is simultaneously weird, beautiful, ugly, and cute which paired with her lovable disposition makes her all the more endearing. Part of the way through which we come to understand Okja is through her eyes which are incredibly soulful – and to me, the closeups of her eyes were the most poignant because in these shots we see that someone is really there.

Okja, brought to life by CGI

Jake Gyllenhaal is virtually unrecognizable playing a bizarre, unhinged, and alcoholic zoologist and veterinarian. Because his countenance and affect is so completely different than how he appears in other films, it took me a while to realize who he was. To me, his character represented the perversity inherent in exploiting animals for entertainment masquerading as education (i.e. zoos, aquariums, etc.), as well as the nefarious aspects of vivisection.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. Johnny Wilcox

Giancarlo Esposito plays a strategist within the Mirando. His character is the embodiment of Mirando Corp – professional, friendly, and diplomatic on the outside; morally bankrupt on the inside. Somewhat similar to the drug dealer he played in Breaking Bad, he’s calm, cool, and calculating. However, in Ojka his character is a little more grounded and normal.

Giancarlo Esposito as Frank Dawson, with Tilda Swinton as Nancy Mirando

Paul Dano’s performance as leader of the ALF group was strong, though I found his character to be a bit too cloying. For instance, he introduces himself and his ALF team to Mija as “animal lovers” and later says “we love you” even though they barely know her.

Paul Dano as Jay, ALF leader

By the way, as an animal activist, I personally would not call myself an “animal lover.” I believe in justice for the animals, period. It’s not about me and whether or not I “love” animals; it’s about their right not to be treated as resources.

In this sense, I think the ALF came across not only as extremists, but also as overly sentimental – which is something the animal movement has often been accused of. The truth is most of us are not extremists, nor are we overly sentimental. Rather, we have a strong sense of conviction about what is morally right and our logic is often misunderstood and misconstrued by a culture that still just doesn’t get it.

How Okja differs from other animal movies

Being that animal abuse is a taboo subject in our society, the film industry has mostly shied away from it. However, they couldn’t avoid it all together because for movies geared towards children, animals are an undeniably powerful draw. For instance, incorporating animals into their films as either sidekicks or as the main characters is one of Disney’s signature moves. Sometimes, they even exposed the dark side of humans’ relationship towards animals. In Bambi, we see a young deer’s mother ruthlessly killed by a hunter; in Dumbo, a deformed elephant is separated from his mother and is used as a spectacle for circus attendees to laugh at.

In the 90s, Warner Brothers produced Free Willy, about the friendship formed between a whale at an aquarium and a boy who decides to help free him, showed the ethical dilemma with confining marine mammals. By the way, if you want to know what happened to Willy in real life, there’s a documentary on him called Keiko: The Untold Story.

Also in the 90s, Universal studios came out with Babe, about a pig who learns to herd sheep. Interesting fact: James Cromwell, the actor who plays the farmer in the film actually went vegan after filming Babe, and became an animal rights activist. And speaking of both James Cromwell and aquariums, Cromwell recently helped to stage a protest at SeaWorld orca show, and was removed for trespassing.

So, anyway, if animal liberation isn’t a new concept for Hollywood, what is it about Okja that’s so different? Well, first and foremost it’s not geared towards children, it’s geared towards adults. This is made clear through the abundant use of curse words. And despite having a fairly simple storyline, the overall film is edgy, relevant, and timely.

If I were to draw parallels between any other kinds of movies about animals, I wouldn’t relate it to Disney. Instead, some films that came to mind were Michael Clayton – which stars Tilda Swinton portraying another executive for a company responsible for corporate malfeasance, the TV show Mr. Robot in which there’s an underground vigilante hijacker group bearing similarities to the ALF, and Princess Mononoke, the Japanese anime film by Hayao Miyazaki, in which a young woman raised by wolves and a prince try to save a magical forest from being razed to the ground by corporate plunderers.

Many critics have compared Okja Steven Spielberg’s ET – because in both films, a strange creature befriends a child, who comes into conflict with the adult organizations who see them only as oddities to experimented with and use.

Regardless of its target audience, the main thing that’s so powerful about Okja is that it gets right to the heart of the issue with using animals. It deftly evokes feelings of empathy, compassion, grief, and frustration. It piercingly underscores the moral injustice of treating complex, sentient beings as property.

And despite being fictitious and having certain surrealistic elements, it hits extremely close to home. Because while the viewer knows that the factory farms may not be exactly like the one depicted in Okja, they also know on some level that the quality of experience is the same.

Finally, I think the reason why it could potentially be a game-changer is that it came at the right time – a period in our cultural evolution where our consciousness around our treatment of animals has been raised, and a time when veganism is becoming more and more mainstream. People are becoming more aware that vegan food is delicious, healthier, and better for the environment. And though several documentaries have come out recently about the ethical, health and environmental issues with consuming animals – ex: Forks Over Knives, Speciesism: The MovieCowspiracy, What the Health – we haven’t had a fictional movie on where our food comes from until now.

As much as I love documentaries and feel like it’s one of the best way to learn about subjects the mainstream media won’t cover, I will concede that art – particularly literature and film can have a way of getting through to us in a way that journalism often can’t.

Game-changing potential

Will Okja turn people vegan? Perhaps not on it’s own, but as more and more people become aware of the health benefits of a vegan diet, the environmental consequences of animal ag, and the plight of the billions of animals we exploit, Oka may have the power to push people over the edge. If the comments below the trailer on YouTube are any indication the answer is yes, it will turn people vegan, but for how long it’s not possible to say.

Apparently Bong Joon-ho, despite having created a film about animal liberation and having visited a slaughterhouse as part of his research, couldn’t stay away from animal products for long, citing his penchant for Korean barbecue. I suspect will essentially be the case for many others who see the film. They may momentarily swear off eating animals, but as seeing the film becomes a more distant memory, they’ll wind up relapsing because animal consumption is still very embedded into our society.

What is certain is that the veil is being lifted on where our food comes from and that Okja seems to be a harbinger of this trend.

Films with similar themes

Okja brought to mind for me a bunch of other films and TV shows with the same through line of corrupt companies vs. whistle blowers who are intent on taking them down.

ALF: Behind the Mask

If you’re curious about the real-life Animal Liberation Front (ALF), this fun, playful, and fast-paced documentary tells their story.

Michael Clayton

I mentioned this film a few times in the review, because it stars Tilda Swinton in a similar role and it also addresses corporate malfeasance, this time in the form of environmental pollution and its  collateral damage on human health.

Princess Mononoke

Many people have compared Okja’s style – expressive, imaginative, larger-than-life – to that of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime films. In particular, I was reminded of Princess Mononoke in which an enchanted forest comes under threat by miners.

Virunga

The struggle for animal protection against corporations and profit in Okja reminded me of this documentary. In Virunga, a British oil company threatens to enter and disrupt a national reserve in which the world’s last mountain gorillas live. Like Okja, the gorillas we meet in Virunga are shy, sensitive, and playful creatures, despite their imposing size and build.

The Corporation

This documentary explains that in US, corporations are protected as persons under the 14th amendment, and yet have no moral or social obligations, other than to make money. Examining the environmental, health, and sociological consequences of this sanction, the film makes the case that if corporations were to be subjected to a psychological evaluation, most of them would be classified as psychopaths.

Mr. Robot

A computer programmer working for a larger multinational, sardonically referred to as “Evil Corp” or “E Corp” for short, gets recruited by a vigilante hacking group called “F Society” to take down the same company he works for. In Okja, the ALF called to mind the hacking group in Mr. Robot, because they both have lofty and altruistic ideals, but go about pursuing them in illegal, subversive ways.

Whale Wars

If you were inspired by the ALF as portrayed in Okja, you might like Animal Planet’s reality TV show Whale Wars in which the marine conservationist organization Sea Shepherd uses direct action tactics to take down Japanese whalers illegally poaching whales off the coast of Antarctica. Also worth watching is Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson, about Sea Shepherd’s founder, available on Netflix.

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