Last year for my girlfriend’s birthday, she ordered and ate an entire pig from a Chicago barbecue joint. She’s an ex-cheesemonger, foodie, and walking Liz Lemon punchline: the only time I refer to her as “lover” is when “meat” comes right before it. She also came with me to see Okja for its theatrical press screening. We cried the whole Uber ride back from the theater. She also did not order a full pig on her birthday this year.
Okja is a movie that’s like a cross between The Iron Giant and Chicken Run if both were scarier, weirder, and more pointed. A company breeds a massive kind of pig (that looks nothing like a pig) and sends a handful of piglets to farmers around the world for a contest (and good PR). A young girl raises one of these pigs, Okja, and when the company arrives to reclaim their juicy, full-grown almost-literal cash cow, she fights back.
Despite the majority of Okja’s news cycle being dominated by its high-profile Cannes debut and the resulting controversy due to its Netflix production origins, the film is far more notable for being the best pro-vegetarian film in over a decade. It’s not a film with message’s of general anti-cruelty like White God’s dogfighting drama or the new Planet of the Apes series’ “what hath humanity wrought” superchimps. It’s also not a larger agribusiness critique like Food, Inc., but one focused specifically on the meat industry.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t join the plethora of dry, preachy vegan documentaries that already have a home on Netflix, where they lie in wait for a stoned college kid to browse past and swear off frozen chicken nuggets for a month. Okja is more effective than all these at driving its central message. It works so well because we like stories with morals, not lectures. We’re raised on fables and psalms and after-school specials that stick in our mental craw, nagging at us later in life. In Okja’s case, we listen to the angelic celery stalk on one shoulder debate the devilish hot dog on the other. The movie’s so specific in its aim and generates such a consistent effect on its audience that PETA has a whole crowd-sourced article about the film.
Though director Bong Joon-ho and his co-writer Jon Ronson never intended their film to turn people vegetarian, it’s certainly having that effect on its viewing audience – at least, according to Twitter user response and my own anecdotal experience with recent green-intensive date nights. This is just another sign of the film’s quality. Its artistic impact leads to maximizing its philosophical punch, which will hit a healthy portion of the 50-million-plus American Netflix subscribers. If 2% of Netflix subscribers watch Okja, it’ll have reached more people than the ASPCA has members. If 13% watch, it’ll have reached more people than PETA’s membership numbers. This is all to say, with such a large platform, if you do something right, it’s easy to see it take off.
It all starts with the film’s satire, its harsh depiction of meat-production realities, and their impact upon my paté-loving girlfriend. Our homeward bound weeping – broken only by declarations swearing off meat – was both uncomfortable and deeply moving, because how often does a movie drive you to make a sincere life choice? Especially one marketed with Jake Gyllenhaal‘s short-shorts? That front-loaded light-heartedness, expertly planted by Joon-ho the tonal whiplash king, sets you up for a vegan knockout.
The director’s knack for misdirection sometimes makes his movies seem incohesive at first, all the moving parts seeming like a disparate jumble of puzzle pieces from different puzzles. The Gyllenhaalian excess, the superpig turd gun, the traditional grandfather vs. rebellious grandchild, the orthodontically-afflicted CEO (Tilda Swinton) – it’s a carnival of silliness for the first hour. We learn to love Okja, to love the relationship between Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) and Okja, and to appreciate the complexities of the film’s characters. If these characters were black and white, the film would fizzle like bacon grease. It’s not enough to sell the audience, you have to make your message seem like it was our idea in the first place. The easiest way to do that is with imperfection. Even when caricatured, the villainous business executives make great points about needing cost-effective solutions to world hunger while the well-intentioned Animal Liberation Front members are often steeped in violent (and hilarious) hypocrisy.
This humor is slapstick at first, slowly blackening over the film’s fiery narrative until it burns away completely, leaving us with the desperately depressing ash. Robbing us of the humor, the freedom of the happy-go-lucky life led by Okja and Mija, mirrors the superpig’s imprisonment. We may get smatterings of humor in the film’s portrayals of flawed activists and “animal lovers,” but the jokes sour as quickly as the Swinton satire as soon as the story leaves the idyllic nature of rural South Korea and moves to the increasingly imposing industrialization of Seoul and New York City.
It is there we discover the horror of meat. Systematic rape, torture, and execution feed the ravenous appetite of the superpig industry. Friendly-faced Okja can’t be bolt-gunned, decapitated, skinned, and hung upside-down! There are kids in this movie! The film’s finale contains shocking content, the worst showings of meat manufacturing callousness. Does this CGI accurately correlate to the way I get my burgers? Confirming that would require me to go to one of these slaughterhouses in real life and honestly, I don’t make enough money to take that chance. I can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. But I do know that Joon-ho and Producer Dooho Choi went on-site in Colorado and felt like the smell followed them all the way back to New York.
No thanks. I’m still having a hard time thinking about the ending of this fictional superpig movie without getting emotional. Even if I am still eating meat, I’m avoiding the mammals. The pigs, the cows. I just finished a whole book on Foie gras production and as of now, I’m more likely to chow down on its force-fed flavor than I am on anything remotely Okja-like. Okja isn’t just a successful film, it’s a successful piece of satirical propaganda that’s production process turned even its director vegetarian (for a little while, at least). My girlfriend’s lasted a few meatless post-Okja weeks already. How long will you?