Warning: This article contains spoilers for Okja.
How far does a movie or book have to go before causing a visceral, sometimes life-changing reaction? How many Inconvenient Truths and Cowspiracys are we going to sit through before dramatic change to our food systems and carbon footprints are enacted?
For the most part, headlines for Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s (Snowpiercer, The Host) new Okja, distributed by Netflix, repeat the concept that the film has the convincing power to make meat lovers join the animal cruelty-minded vegan movement. Eater writes, “Will ‘Okja’ Really Turn The World Vegan?” Foodbeast states, “Netflix’s Revolutionary New Film ‘Okja’ Is Causing People To Go Vegan.” Film blog Film School Rejects pens, “‘Okja’ Made My Carnivore Girlfriend Go Vegetarian.'”
The film, which originally premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of the Mirando Corporation’s, led by Lucy Mirando’s attempt to solve the world’s hunger crises by genetically modifying a miracle pig that’ll feed more people, create less waste, leave a smaller carbon footprint and most importantly, taste great. For marketing purposes, the Mirando Corporation, whose former CEO was known for his involvement in creating Napalm — which has driven the company into harsh lights — hands off super piglets to farmers around the globe in a competition to raise the best super pig. What the good people in this fictional world don’t know is that the super pig is the product of years of failed experimentation on animals. Cue the Peta-like organization, or the Animal Liberation Front, as they’re called in the movie.
Fast forward ten years and a Korean farmer, Heebong, has won the contest and raised the biggest and healthiest super pig and named her Okja. Okja is essentially pasture-raised and runs around freely in the mountainsides outside of Seoul. Mija, Heebong’s granddaughter, has made Okja her best friend for the past ten years. When Mirando officials come to collect Okja for pageantry and then slaughter, Mija makes it her mission to save Okja. The super pig is shipped from Korea to America, where Mirando’s facilities play home to mutated failed experiments and an already existing farm of super pigs. Scenes of the Mirando super pig factory mimic those of mass-factory farming facilities. The super pigs are lined up to enter the kill room where an employee shoots the pig. The carcass is then processed, different parts turned into small, tidy packages of store-ready meat.
According to IndieWire, Bong and his producer, Dooho Choi, visited a meat processing plant in Colorado for research. The pair temporarily practiced veganism as a result.
The first time anything made me a vegetarian was when my 10th grade English teacher assigned Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for us to delve into and dissect. For those unfamiliar with the controversial 1906 novel, Sinclair writes about an Eastern European family that spends nearly all its wealth to immigrate to America. They find themselves in Chicago, working in meat processing facilities, which were then notorious for being riddled with rats, bacteria and all-around unsanitary conditions. They worked long hours for little pay and most of them suffered dismal ends. For instance, one overworked and underfed worker falls asleep somewhere in the factory. He gets eaten alive by rats.
The book sparked not only a vegetarian movement within my class, but — perhaps, more importantly — a crackdown on Chicago’s meat packing factories, which eventually led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. My own stint as a pescatarian lasted only two years, partially due to recurring dreams of chicken wings and mostly in part to educating myself on better and humane farming practices. What the book, Okja and dozens of other movies like Soylent Green (1973), do however, is remind audiences of the horror that is the current food system. What these forms of media should do — and in the case of The Jungle, did do — is to inspire people to get involved in local food ways and educate children about the origins of food.