Look to the Piglet
by Dominic O’Key and Caitlin Stobie
Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2017) is a weird, wonderful, and unashamedly pro-animal family drama. Made with the South Korean director’s signature bombast, the film’s maximalist aesthetic squeezes together action, comedy and horror to form an anti-capitalist adventure. Centring on one young girl’s quest to rescue her closest friend – a pig – from the jaws of the US meat industry, Okja concerns itself with questions surrounding production and consumption, the limits of sustainability, intergenerational and transnational miscommunication, and, most crucially, cross-species love. It’s tempting to bill Okja as a Babe (1995) for the Netflix age. But Chris Noonan’s farmyard drama feels incredibly smaller, and far less industrialised, than this globetrotting pig tale of capitalist expropriation and Silicon Valley-style fixes. What’s more, Okja continues Bong’s longstanding preoccupation with capitalism’s ruination of ecologies. In The Host (2006), the film’s monster is a toxic consequence of pouring hundreds of gallons of formaldehyde in the Han river; and Snowpiercer (2013) takes place in a planet rendered completely inhospitable due to the western world’s botched attempts to solve climate change. Okja, the third installation of Bong’s cli-fi trilogy, turns its attention to the dinner table, beginning in 2007 with the public’s growing concern about factory farming’s impact on global warming.
Enter Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the newly crowned CEO of her family’s multinational agro-chemical corporation, who is parachuted into the boardroom to greenwash away consumer fears over dangerous methane levels and carbon footprints. In the film’s bouncy opening sequence, Mirando (a pastel-shaded embodiment of Lean In-style corporate feminism) TED-Talks her way through her plans to revolutionise the food industry. This miraculous shift will take place, Mirando claims, because of her company’s supposed discovery of an entirely new breed of pigs: “Our superpigs”, Mirando expounds, “will not only be big and beautiful, they will also leave a minimal footprint on the environment, consume less feed, and produce less excretions. And most importantly, they need to taste fucking good.” But how to market this new ‘organic’ species? Mirando creates a competition that goes as follows: send 26 superpiglets to 26 small farms in the global south, allow the piglets to enjoy a free-range decade fattening and frolicking in “Momma Nature”, and then unveil the greatest superpig of all in New York in 2017.
Cutting to the present, we meet one of these superpigs – the titular Okja – and her human companion, a girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), who lives in rural South Korea with her grandfather, Heebong (Byun Hee-bong). Soon Mija’s grandfather is informed that Okja has been awarded the ‘prize’ of being the Superlative Superpig, and Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the Mirando team are on site to transport Okja to the heart of the US empire. Heebong, colluding with Mirando’s representatives, attempts to ‘buy off’ his granddaughter by gifting her a solid-gold pig – traditionally a wedding present, he confesses, but in this case she deserves it. Mija, however, is not prepared to accept this corrupted rite of passage. In a fit of rage, she smashes her piggy bank, scoops up its contents, and rushes into central Seoul to find Okja.
Mija’s mission is both helped and hindered by members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a group of anarchic animal rights activists who want to use Okja as a living hidden camera to expose malpractice at Mirando’s factory farms (this is a tactic frequently used by animal rights organisations). The ALF’s leader, played by a serene-faced Paul Dano, reveals to Mija what more astute viewers may have already suspected: superpigs are not organic at all, but rather the results of decades of scientific experiments; Mirando’s competition is merely a PR exercise to pacify the public and obscure the origins of these genetically modified creatures.
The ALF members provide some of the most delightful moments in the film. There are searingly accurate stylisations of white veganism and its privileges: trendy dyed hair, smatterings of accents from the global north, and borderline breatharianism. But such stereotypes are not there to appease the film’s mostly omnivorous audience. Rather, they help kickstart a narrative trajectory that sees the activists develop away from hubristic and hypocritical idealism (preaching non-violence shortly before punching fellow activists in the face) and towards a more mature understanding of critical veganism as a self-reflexive process – one which calls for constantly rethinking all harmful modes of production. This is neatly signified in the film’s post-credits sequence in which Dano, leaving prison, extinguishes a friend’s cigarette.
After a wild superpig chase through the Seoul subway, and a few crucial mistranslations between Mija and the ALF activists, our protagonist is eventually flown to New York to meet Lucy Mirando. At the superpig award ceremony Mija is forced to wear a hanbok-style outfit in pastel hues, designed and signed by Mirando herself. Here, neo-colonial commodification of ‘exotic’ clothing merges with the aesthetics of pinkwashing and greenwashing. The film’s colour palette thus highlights the role of gender in neoliberal public health discourse, from the aesthetics of environmentalism to medical awareness. (It is no coincidence that Lucy’s identical twin, Nancy, later offers her sister a pink cigarette while lighting herself a green one; the entire Mirando aesthetic consists of capitalism, carcinogens, and cultural appropriation.) One cannot but think of Carol J. Adams’s Sexual Politics of Meat, especially as Mija continues to resist the societal expectations symbolised by her grandfather’s golden pig. She will not be good; she will not settle down; and, importantly, she is never sexualised. (Okja, however, is not so lucky.)
Okja’s closing scenes in the Mirando factory farm do not focus specifically on the fact that abattoir workers are typically subject to dreadful working conditions for long hours and low wages. Respiratory problems, repetitive strain disorder, and chronic pain are just three common consequences of precarious shiftwork at factory farms. In Bong’s film, we initially encounter the factory as a space of white lab coats and silver surfaces. It is a space desperately attempting to turn its human workers into faceless machinic cogs on the sanitised assembly line, processing meat rather than slaughtering it. But blood is a stubborn substance, and it won’t always wipe away. By having Mija force her way into Mirando’s private property, Okja manages to turn this sterile scene of production into an abject house of horrors, a site of mass death. Here, swinging superpig carcasses crash into Mija’s body. Her clothes become increasingly bloodstained. Yet the real villains, we are reminded, are not those who are forced to work in such environments, but rather those who perpetuate such conditions.
Mija finds Okja trapped in a holding pen with a bolt gun pressed to her head. The girl pleads with Okja’s would-be executioner, unfolding a photo of her and Okja happy together. But such sentimentality will not wash in the Mirando factory. Affect will not do. To reclaim Okja, Mija must play and beat the capitalists at their own game. Thus when Nancy Mirando – backstabbing her twin sister to become the company’s new CEO – arrives with her private security team to arrest our heroine and her ALF comrades, Mija produces out of her bag the small golden pig, the same trinket that her grandfather had given her earlier in the film. She slides the pig across the floor, proposing a simple exchange that mimics Mirando’s own logic: one commodity for another, this pig for that one. Nancy, biting hard on the golden pig’s snout to ensure its value (a playfully ‘on the nose’ image of carnist greed), gladly accepts Mija’s transaction: “pleasure doing business with you”, Mirando says. Mija’s actions here are by no means an endorsement of Mirando’s profit-driven worldview, as some reviewers have claimed. Rather, Mija’s trade is the only path to victory when the power relations between her and the Mirando corporation are so asymmetrical.
In Okja, then, Mija’s personal sentiment does not automatically win out over capital’s bottom-line. Yes, she rescues Okja in the end, bringing the narrative to a neat conclusion, but the carnivorous economy of industrial agriculture literally continues in the background. Thousands of superpigs are heard crying and howling in unison as Mija and Okja walk away between electric barbed wire fences. Okja’s final scenes therefore ask the viewer to balance two competing emotional impulses: first, the joy of seeing Mija re-united with her friend; second, the dread of knowing that Okja is merely one superpig among thousands who are destined to be slaughtered. In a word, it’s bittersweet. This is a radical feeling and a signal of what happens when the basic plot of a children’s story (the disorderly child must rescue their lost object) is transplanted into the unforgiving world of profit. This is not to say, though, that Okja ends on this note alone. For Bong adds a third sensation into the mix: hope. As Mija and Okja are ushered out of the Mirando complex, a pair of adult superpigs brush up close to the fences and push their piglet through the wires. Okja surreptitiously carries the piglet to freedom. Hope is contained within this smuggled piglet.
In her opus The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt describes how every new birth has the potential to mend the world. Each new life is, for Arendt, a beginning-again, a gift of natality that contains the promise of transforming the political sphere. This explains why the ending of Bong’s previous cli-fi genre mashup, Snowpiercer, presents simultaneously the end of the world and the start of a new one. Set eighteen years after the wealthiest nations on earth have frozen the planet into a sixth ice age, the film follows a perpetually accelerating and globe-circling train that carries the last survivors of the human species. The train, then, is the world. Inside the train, strict caste hierarchies are enforced and maintained by carefully implemented disciplinary measures: ideology, the gun, under-feeding. Snowpiercer documents how the train’s variously malnourished, disabled, and traumatised underclasses turn their despair into a magnificent but ill-fated revolutionary attempt to fight their way through the train’s carriages.
By the time Snowpiercer ends, the train has been exploded off the tracks. That world has ended. A couple of survivors emerge from the wreckage, two young humans who will carry the future of humanity on their shoulders. But even this remains poised between life and death: the final shot of the film sees a lone polar bear scrutinising these new human inhabitants. Is the bear hungry or just inquisitive? In other words, will humanity end or begin again? Either way, the future is housed within these two young lives. For Arendt, natality is specifically a human quality. But the power of Okja’s ending is precisely that it asks us to rethink natality beyond the human. The liberated superpiglet becomes the living possibility of reconceiving the sacrificial relationship between human and nonhuman into a new cross-species community. How can we live life otherwise? How can we realise a meat-free world? Okja suggests that a good starting place would be to look to the nonhuman. After all, revolution does not have a human face.
The final scene of Okja returns us to Heebong’s home, where Mija, Okja, and the superpiglet sit down to supper. This family meal, too, is a marker of nascent interspecies ethics. It deviates from all the others in that its ingredients are deliberately obscured: no fish or chickens in the pot, this time. Yet the take-home message of the film is not a hard-line vegan stance; rather, with both humans and animals moving around their evening rituals, we are forced to interrogate the values underlying our conceptions of tradition, hospitality, and community. Just as we leave Babe with the uneasy and unspoken knowledge that his herded sheep will be killed, so too are we reminded that the superpigs from the preceding scene will not escape their genetically coded fate.
If, like us, you’ve spent the last two months paying attention to the way Okja is being ‘consumed’, then you will have noticed that almost every review contains the word anthropomorphism. A quick dictionary search shows that anthropomorphism names that process in which people attribute human characteristics to nonhumans. This attribution is seen, in the adult world at least, as being unquestionably bad. It’s childish, it’s silly, and it’s wrongheaded to think of a farm animal – or even your cat – as having ‘feelings’. You don’t have friendships with animals, these people claim, but rather projections of friendships. This is precisely the line of thought which some reviewers trot out when they accuse Okja of anthropomorphising its eponymous pig. For these commentators, whatever brilliance Bong’s film might have is substantially let down by its propensity to depict Okja as too smart, too lovable, and too ‘human’.
These anxieties reveal a great deal about the ideological reproduction of the ‘human’ itself. As John Berger writes in his wonderful essay “Why Look at Animals?”, anthropomorphism isn’t an aberration at all; in fact, it’s something fundamentally integral to the relationship between humans and other species. For it is only recently that anthropomorphism has been policed so ruthlessly: “In the last two centuries”, Berger writes, “animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us double uneasy.” Berger identifies anthropomorphism as an innate pre-modern impulse that modernity has tried its best to iron out. To function as a human in capitalism, modernity tells us, you must give up your naive beliefs that nonhumans have agency. Don’t endow things with souls, because souls are nothing more than things. Now eat the pig!
When Okja’s reviewers chastise its anthropomorphism, they therefore forget – wilfully or otherwise – that anthropomorphism is an intentional strategy of the film’s politics. Okja sets out not to confirm our carnivorous ingestion of meat but to actively challenge it. And this challenge, if it is to be successful, must also attempt to re-enchant the so-called abyssal rupture between human and nonhuman. Jack Halberstam, writing about Chicken Run’s queer utopian politics, describes this re-enchantment as a practice of “creative anthropomorphism”, whereby “we invent the models of resistance we need and lack in reference to other lifeworlds, animal and monstrous.” Against the conventional plots of the historical drama or the Hollywood romcom, Halberstam suggests that contemporary children’s films have a peculiar capacity to accommodate anti-hegemonic and liberatory politics.
In this sense Okja is a children’s film, a live-action cartoon that rubs up against the unremitting world of vampiric capital. It is not a film for ‘adults’, if we think of the adult as someone who vigilantly creates borders between themselves and animals. Bong’s film is not interested in sating its audience’s carnivorous appetites. It wants to turn stomachs instead. This explains the film’s deliberately cartoonish grotesqueness, as well as its hyperbolic colour palettes, tonal shifts, and individual performances. Okja is a real-time animation which mobilises the queer logics of the children’s film – where, crucially, animals and things can have agency – in order to speak back to globalisation, cultural and corporate imperialism, and the meat-industry. Foregrounding the environmental realities wreaked by our techno-capitalist present, the film encourages us both to do what we can, however small that may be, and to think outside of the animal-industrial complex. That’ll do, pig.