I’m back with yet another review of a dystopian narrative that is incredibly relevant to the subject of human and non-human animal companionship. I promise not all of my reviews will focus on dark themes, but questions raised in this movie can, I believe, yield deep insights about how we think of companionship and how we exist in relation to nonhuman animals.
Okja is a 2017 film by acclaimed filmmaker and Oscar-winner Bong Joon-Ho. I routinely assign this film in my Animal Intimacies course–a first-year college writing seminar that explores human and non-human animal relationships from a variety of different angles.
Without saying too much about the plot so that you can enjoy the film on your own terms, Okja is the name of a genetically modified creature–a superpig–that looks something like a cross between an enormous pig and a hippo. At the beginning of the film, in a rather maniacal presentation delivered by the new CEO of a corporation named Mirando (meant to be a fictional version of Monsanto), we learn that Mirando has sent 26 superpigs to be raised in farms around the world in an ambitious bid to end world hunger. The healthiest and biggest creature will win the honor of…well, you’ll find out when you watch the film, but I can tell you right now that the honor is rather dubious.
The winning superpig is soon revealed to be Okja, who has been raised by a family–a young girl and her grandfather–living in a peaceful home atop a mountain in South Korea. Ten years after the frenetic Mirando presentation has taken place, we find Okja living a peaceful life in her lush mountaintop home. She has grown up alongside Mija, the young girl, and they have an unusually strong bond. They can communicate with each other nonverbally, and at one point Okja makes a tactical move to save Mija’s life when the latter accidentally slips down a cliff. To say that Mija and Okja are close is an understatement; they’ve essentially grown up as siblings.
So when Okja is named the winner of Mirando’s competition and is forcibly taken to New York by company representatives, Mija sets out on an epic journey to bring her beloved friend home. Along the way, Mija collides with an animal rights organization, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), that seeks to expose Mirando‘s nefarious practices and offer definitive proof of the company’s inhumane treatment of the superpigs. But in order to expose Mirando, ALF is willing to subject Okja to torture so that they can secure incontrovertible proof of the corporation’s abusive practices.
The existential question raised by all these narrative conflicts is thus: when are nonhuman animals our friends? And when are they our food? And what sort of conditions are the animals–and the humans working to turn those animals into food–subjected to in order to bring food to our tables? To the Mirando corporation, Okja and her fellow superpigs represent an exciting future for the meat industry (and more realistically: for their own profit). To Mija, however, Okja is her dearest, lifelong friend. And ALF has an entirely different set of motivations altogether in that they are willing to subject Okja to misery for a greater objective.
Ultimately, Okja presents a narrative that offers a bold look at the intersection of animal rights, companionship, food,and capitalism to help us think about our deeply varied and often conflicting attitudes towards the animals we love and the animals we eat.
Genre: dystopia, fantasy, action/adventure, world cinema
Who should watch this film: anyone who wants to reflect on their attitudes towards and practices involving non-human animals
Who should not watch this film: anyone who is extremely sensitive to depictions of animal abuse
The takeaway: Okja offers a provocative look at how capitalism, industrialization, and different global values shape our attitudes towards non-human animals and food.
Nadeen Kharputly is an unrepentant dog lover. When she’s not hanging out with her best boy, Wiley, she’s an educator and researcher whose expertise is in contemporary American literature and culture. She grew up in Kuwait and lived in California before moving east to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, where she spends plenty of time in nature.