This article contains spoilers
We eat meat. Animals are made of meat. Yet in the UK, veganism has grown by 360% over the last decade. In 2017, Netflix released Okja by Bong Joon-ho. The creative freedom, combined with the $50 million budget Netflix offered meant Joon-Ho was able to discuss the moral dilemmas in meat industry.
Okja is a hybrid film about a hybrid animal. As well as elements of sci-fi, action and adventure, the film is imbued with a powerful animal rights message. In the near future, a corporation run by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces their solution to inefficient animal agriculture: “super pigs”. The genetically modified animals’ key selling points are their ‘naturalness’, their small carbon-footprint, and- the important part- that they “taste fucking good”.
Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) rears Okja the super pig in the mountains of South Korea. In this edenic paradise, Okja and Mija live symbiotically and as best friends. One day they are cruelly separated. Mija’s grandfather explains why, hastily dividing up a picture of Okja: “Shoulder blade! Loin! Spare rib! Hock! Got it?”
On her rescue mission, Mija infiltrates a slaughterhouse where the production line is clinically efficient and the floors are awash with blood. Co-writer Jon Ronson, told GQ, “All the major studios wanted to cut the slaughterhouse scene… Netflix saved the day. I believe the power of Okja would have been greatly diminished by a major studio.” It is in the meat industry’s interest to conceal the truth of meat production, and small wonder that other productions didn’t want to take Joon-ho on. But Netflix is not concerned with one film’s profit; they want original content to keep subscribers.
Mija rescues Okja by buying her. On their way out, the super pigs push a baby pig through the fence and collectively wail in distress. In the real world calves are typically removed from their mothers after 36 hours. The mothers bellow for days in mourning. Videos from activists like charity Viva! show the awful conditions in which UK farmers keep their animals.
Mirando pulls the wool over the consumer’s eyes. Cheap, ‘green’ meat is sealed inside pretty packaging. Reader, make the connection: laughing cows and happy eggs overflow our own supermarket shelves. 56 billion farmed land animals are hurt and killed every year for food. The dystopian tone of the film already resonates with our own reality where demand dictates animal welfare.
Joon-ho is not trying to stop meat production altogether. What the omnivorous director wanted to highlight was “how tragic it is to have animals be part of this capitalistic, mass production system. For them, every day is a holocaust.”
Netflix’s backing meant Joon-ho had complete creative freedom to depict controversial issues. Okja asks us if we really know where our food comes from. It interrogates agricultural practices, showing us that creating animals to kill them is cruel and unnecessary. Mija and Okja embody the bond that humans can share with animals, reminding us that each creature is an individual, not a hunk of meat.