[…] Was one to believe that there was nowhere a god of hogs, to whom this hog personality was precious, to whom these hog squeals and agonies had a meaning? Who would take this hog into his arms and comfort him, reward him for his work well done, and show him the meaning of his sacrifice?
—Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)
Regarding The Jungle, the socialist author Upton Sinclair remarked that although he’d meant to “aim for the public’s heart,” he’d accidentally “hit it in the stomach.” The novel, about the life of a Lithuanian meat packer in Chicago, was treated with shock and mortification. But the public’s disgust was largely in response to Sinclair’s reports of dirtied meat products, not the plight of the working class. The subsequent frenzy only further undermined the novel’s critique of capitalism, which was ultimately reduced to a matter of meat and hygiene.
Upon first glance, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (released this week by Netflix) would appear to be such a reduction. The story of a girl saving her animal friend from the slaughterhouse, some quips have been made here and there about Okja as vegan propaganda, or a “Meet Your Meat”-style public service announcement. But at two hours, Okja could easily run for several more, as it tirelessly wrestles with the idea that attacking capitalism’s symptoms will never destroy its source. But who or what, and where is the source? The question warrants the need to identify every space, every participant complicit in the capitalist structure, from the corporation to the individual personality. Though Okja delivers on this front, still the answer evades its ambitious grasp towards clarity. Even so, the film is Bong’s politically densest work thus far, refusing ideological compromise to think until it reaches a dead end. The pig is only the beginning.
The center of Okja’s madness is the Mirando Corporation’s Super Pig Project, a ten-year competition among 26 farmers around the world to raise the best “Super Pig.” The winner of the competition will star in a parade and be telecast alongside Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of the Corporation, and Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), the world-famous animal scientist. Described as an exotic species found in South America, the Super Pig is actually a genetically engineered beast, an enlarged hybrid between Wilbur the smart pig from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and Fiona, the Internet celebrity hippo from the Cincinnati Zoo. According to Mirando, the true nature of the pig must be kept secret because customers are paranoid. The artificiality of the Pig is enhanced by the film’s shoddy CGI, which gives it a clay-like texture. But the unreality of the Pigs does not mean that they cannot suffer.
The maltreatment of the Super Pigs is of utmost concern to Bong Joon-ho. Obsessively detail-oriented, his wide-scale panoramas of society expand to include those forgotten by the rest: the innocents who suffer as collateral damage. In his debut feature Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), it is not the murdered dogs that receive the brunt of the blow. Rather, it is the homeless man who is arrested for eating them, whose first crime was hunger. There are the abandoned victims of the monster in The Host (2006), whose bodies lay in the dark while the government devises a cover-up; and made more literal, the poorest children on the train in Snowpiercer (2013) who are eaten by the rich.
The Super Pigs join these as some of the lowest of the low on the food chain. They are born to die and tortured every step of the way. Unbeknownst to the public, the Pigs are beaten, trapped in cages, and forced to breed. To our horror, they even possess the consciousness to know that this pain is undeserved. The beasts are a two-fold metaphor. They are martyrs for animal rights; but in the context of the entire system that Bong wishes to confront, the Super Pigs are also representative casualties of capitalism at its worst. Though human-animal comparisons risk demeaning both, even Sinclair recognized that in its brutality, money blurs the line between man and beast, flesh and meat.
This point is missed by the kind but misguided Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a radical animal rights activist group led by Jay (Paul Dano). Pitting itself against the Mirando Corporation, the ALF resorts to hijacking, spying on, and exposing corporate enemies. Its biggest weakness is that it doesn’t do much else. Even these attacks are pitiful and contradictory: in one scene, the ALF wrestles with police while simultaneously ensuring everyone that they do not like hurting people. Plagued by shortsightedness, the group’s reactive politics are shallow blows to a much larger problem.
It is unsurprising that the titular Pig Okja’s human counterpart initially seems like a proletariat mascot. Okja’s best friend is the farm girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), who with her grandfather raised Okja in the mountains of Gangwon Province, South Korea. The pair lives in an idyllic countryside paradise until the Mirando Corporation arrives to take Okja—the “best Super Pig”—away. With no hesitation Mija ventures out to save her. Along the way, she destroys an entire catalogue of capitalist memorabilia: a gold pig, a piggy bank, a pristine office, an entire shopping mall, various cars and trucks. The ALF offers to help, but their half-baked “terrorism” only pushes Okja further into the Mirando lab and eventually, the factory.
The author E.B. White thought that if mankind recognized the beauty of animal consciousness, then animal cruelty would cease. But Bong Joon-ho is much more unforgiving of the extent to which human evil expands when motivated by money. Moreover, human-to-human cruelty is often worse. In an interview with Cine21,
he attributes the inspiration for Mija’s name to an event known as the “mountain girl Youngja incident” of 2001. Youngja was a poor girl who lived with her father in Gangwon Province, who lived in isolation until her story was broadcast on television. She subsequently earned a large sum of TV money only to experience a robbery, the murder of her father, and physical abuse by a foster family. After fleeing to a monastery, she became a monk.1
A real-life tragedy of girlhood torn apart by the greed of others, Youngja’s story is re-interpreted through the fictional Mija.
There are comments floating around on the Korean web arguing that major Korean theaters’ refusal to screen Okja
—it fails to comply to the rules for theatrical-streaming joint releases—is a response to the threat that Bong Joon-ho has long posed to the Korean government. Until January 2017, he and thousands of others (including Handmaiden
director Park Chan-wook) were placed on a government blacklist for artists who are “unfriendly” towards the right-wing former President Park Geun-hye and were subsequently denied state funding.2
But while other artists opt for subtlety, Bong has never been subtle in his anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist stance.
In 2006, Bong Joon-ho staged a lone protest against the halving of a screen quota on Korean films, which would contribute to an overwhelming influx in Hollywood imports.3
Months later, he was called to defend his film The Host
from accusations of anti-Americanism, since its derision of the American military presence in South Korea—in the film, Americans literally dump toxic waste into the river—hit all too close to home.4
Though not nearly as explicit, the same sentiment acts as a backdrop to Okja,
which deals with a different form of American imperialism: American meat, which comprises nearly half of Korea’s beef imports.5
The Jungle implicates America’s meat industry through the lens of the country’s immigrants, but Okja critiques from the outsider perspective of Mija and her grandfather, the Koreans expected to welcome Super Pigs into their market. The Mirando Corporation’s assumption that the Super Pigs are for global distribution proves American livestock’s world domination. But Okja points out that resistance to Mirando is complicated. Over time, the American Super Pig has become a friend to the Korean human. The two are inseparable. While most likely not a metaphor for America-Korea relations, Okja and Mija’s friendship nonetheless comes with a price.
Bong Joon-ho is well known for the distrust of authority that fuels his films; but Okja also speaks to a concurrent distrust of the people, specifically the mob mentality of the masses. Indirectly, the public’s refusal to demand tangible change is what allows the Mirando Corporation to thrive. The ALF, still convinced of the power of awareness, unfolds its plan to take over the Super Pig parade and release graphic footage of animal cruelty at the lab and factory. When they succeed, the rest of the crowd starts to chant as flyers fall from the sky. The chaos is only satisfying for a few seconds until the irony sinks in. This is the same public that just minutes before was gleefully covered in pink and chewing on Super Pig jerky. It is hard to imagine that their knee-jerk response will be as quickly transformed into action.
The frantically paced Okja is propelled by a fear that the anti-capitalist efforts of today are not enough to inspire structural change. The middle portion is bookended by the image of the factory, a symbol that haunts Okja's entirety. The film opens in an abandoned Mirando factory that Lucy Mirando vows to reclaim. These promises are sprinkled with diluted claims like ending “world hunger” and revolutionizing the “livestock industry” (the whitewashed term for slaughterhouse) with “love.” But as we finally witness in the film’s penultimate scene, the new Mirando factory is just as bloody, only more automated. Here, reclamation is nothing more than a re-branding strategy that disguises itself with the aphorisms of mainstream environmentalism.
Painted a metallic hospital blue, the factory resembles an alien spacecraft, though what takes place within its confines is not too different from present-day meatpacking. Outside, crowds of Super Pigs await death. Inside, the factory’s bright lights expose every side and every angle of Mija, the ALF, and Nancy Mirando (also Tilda Swinton, as part of an “evil twin” subplot) as they gather for a showdown. But everyone seems small in such a large space, surrounded by a spiral of bloody machinery and workers in white. The factory’s sleek lines and edges appear like a large metal cage as it becomes evident that all battles fought thus far fall short. Perhaps, Bong suggests, everyone is stuck in an assembly line, not only the Pigs.
The film concludes with the revelation of Mija’s selfishness. Like Hyun-seo from The Host,
who can fight to survive but could never defeat the river creature even if she tried, Mija is a great girl and just that. When given the chance to save Okja, she takes it. The two return to the mountains as if the factory no longer exists. Bong Joon-ho describes Okja
as a “love story.”6
The love that he refers to can only be selfish in the grand scheme of things, since the selfless act of heroism is already a futile task.
Critic Kim Hye-ri explains that the characters of Bong’s films as those “whose bodies are all they have left.”7
However disappointing, Mija’s decision to rescue the body of the one she loves is an act of devotion. And so Okja
relents the cheap opportunity for an eleven-year old girl to bring an end to capitalism. Instead, the Mirando Corporation lives on and the two friends escape far from the maddening crowd as if nothing happened. Meanwhile, we as an audience are left with the flat, stinging sensation of hitting a wall. But if any feeling could so aptly reflect love in the time of capitalism, then it is this: to willingly hit a wall until an eventual point of demolition.
4. H. Lee, op. cit.
7. H. Kim, op. cit.