Sausage & Pepper-Money Pizza
I am not a vegan nor a vegetarian. However, I truly believe that in the not-too-distant future we will view our current meat industry in a similar light as slavery. Don’t get me wrong, we should value & respect human life absolutely, and there are many issues regarding people hurting people that should be addressed first; stop treating human beings like animals or things.
But next rung on the ladder is respecting life in general. And regardless of if you are a cannibal or someone who wanders around waiting for fruit to fall from trees, you have to admit there’s a pretty big difference between being grateful for the sustenance & food you hunted & gathered with your own two hands vs swinging by McDonald’s.
Ultimately, Okja doesn’t tell you not to eat meat. But it does raise questions about how animals become food; and maybe a little bit about the hierarchy of animal consciousness. But all that really comes at the end of the movie. While this review has been heavy handed, the film is not.
Okja is an adventure about a little girl & her pet best friend, in the vein of stories like Lassie, Old Yeller, Flipper, & Cujo. Through a series of implausible inciting incidents, a girl named Mija ends up taking care of a giant pig/dog/seal/hippopotamus monster on her grandfathers farm. Mija & grandfather have spent the last 10 years raising Okja to be the happiest & healthiest pigmopotadog, known by the company that owns them simply as “super pigs.”
The audience is supposed to believe these Okja creatures are a real animal that was found hidden under a rock in some rainforest, but since the main evil entity is a corporate stand-in for companies like Monsanto & McDonald’s, clearly they are genetically modified animals. The super pigs don’t need to consume much to thrive, and they only deficate small pebble-poops that are apparently very environmentally friendly. Unbeknownst to Mija, Okja is being raised as a sustainable source of tasty meat for the bad-guy corporation.
Tilda Swinton plays twin sisters in charge of the villainous company, alternating between wanting to be the bestest businesses person ever, and just being a cold-hearted money-grubbing witch. Not a literal magical witch, but watch your language because there are children present. Actually, this movie is rated R, mostly for the graphic depiction of how meat farms work. Think about it: meat production is such a visually horrific event, the MPAA considers it as deplorable as naughty words & women’s nipples!
As Mija & Okja go on their globetrotting adventure, trying to escape the clutches of the witchy Monsanto, they encounter a reality tv host of Animal Planet-like shows, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and an animal rights group featuring Paul Dano & Steven Yeun. Gyllenhaal’s character makes some bold choices but I feel his character kind of gets the short end of the stick, both in the story and the overall film. But the Animal Liberation Front is heartfelt & hysterical.
The ALF is full of people who want what is best for animals, but struggle between doing what needs to be done & standing by their beliefs in what is right. One of the members is constantly on the verge of passing out because he refuses to eat anything that is produced by harming living things, which is basically all food. I also wonder if the Animal Liberation Front realizes their acronym is the name of an alien that ate cats, ALF.
However, it is Mija & Okja who steal the show. This movie is considered low-budget (at $50 million) and was released straight to Netflix streaming, but a very realistic, giant super pig is in almost every shot. And the thrilling action sequences that show the love & intelligence between Mija & Okja are the backbone of a story that could very easily become maladroit in less capable hands. The little girl who plays Mija, Ahn Seo-hyun, deserves the highest praise, as well as co-writer/director Bong Joon-ho.
Now, I want to spoil the end of the movie, just to explore & simplify the message bow-tied to the finale of a quirky adventure film. At the beginning of the movie, Okja & Mija go fishing and bring a single fish back to grandfather’s to cook it for dinner. Contrasted against the members of ALF representing the antithesis of the meat-eaters, it doesn’t seem like this movie is advocating to completely ignore our omnivorous roots. But the breeding-farm-rape scene & slaughter house/concentration camp should at least make you question how we harvest living creatures.
The moment that truly drew tears from my eyes comes after they narrowly escape the butcher. Mija sells a golden piglet to witchy lady to buy Okja alive. If that ain’t heavy handed for the golden calf & worshipping money instead of life, I don’t know what is. But as our bruised & battered heroes are escorted out of the compound, two other super pigs beg Okja to take their baby super pig to safety. Suffering through the pain of an electrified fence, the parent super pig opens a small enough hole to shove the baby through. The baby tries to scurry back to its parents, but before any guard or villains notice anything, Okja scoops up the baby & hides it in her mouth as they escape. Not a dry eye in the house.
You see, Okja has displayed high levels of intelligence & complex emotions. She was able to reason through advanced geometric trigonometry with levers & pulleys in order to save Mija’s life, as well as spray poop on a corrupt businessman. Throughout the movie, Mija is seen whispering into Okja’s ear, but there is no audible words or subtitles, it is just a girl sharing her secrets with her pet best friend. The movie ends with Okja leaning down to Mija’s ear, and I think it is implied that Okja is whispering too. Imagine all the secrets you tell your pet, and what if they could talk back?
I’m not sure if this means that we shouldn’t eat animals that can talk, because I’m pretty sure cannibalism is already frowned upon and no one ate that sign-language gorilla from Congo. Maybe they’re just trying to show animals shouldn’t be lower on the food chain. Unless they’re fish. Or corporate money worshiping witches.
For more “food” for thought, check out the recent Cracked Podcast (Astoundingly Complex Logistics of How Food Gets Made) from September 4. I happened to watch the movie right before the podcast was released and found them to be serendipitously compelling companion pieces.