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Okja Review: Spoiler-Free

Earlier today, the Netflix original movie Okja was released. The film was originally screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film opens with a view inside Miranda Corporation, the Big Ag businesses responsible for finding the first “super pig” and initiating a global competition to find a farmer that can raise the best pig. The time to rear one? Ten years.

Cut to ten years later, and the story follows Mija, a young girl who lives with her grandfather in the mountains of South Korea. Her grandfather, a farmer, received one piglets as part of the international competition. We are shown Mija exploring the mountainside with her now-grown pig, Okja. The bond between the two is clearly strong, and throughout the film, Mija demonstrates her love of Okja through daring adventures and displays of downright badassery for a girl who’s supposed to be just 13 or 14.

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Big name actors and actresses like Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal play eccentric roles with easy-to-hate characters; while the young Ahn Seo-hyun truly shines as the lovable Mija. Other familiar faces grace the screen with a relatively diverse casting.

The message of Okja is critical of meat industries and corporate motivations. Through it’s imaginative story (using a fictitious “super pig” with a puppy-like face in place of a common, domestic pig), Ojka is able to provides a direct commentary on the horrors of meat consumption—whereas, told with the truth, narratives like this are typically ignored or shunned.

Though the film is fantasy, there are many parallels with our reality. We learn at the opening scene that food production is becoming a global challenge; but just as we see happening in our own world, the folks in this story refuse to acknowledge that perhaps…just maybe…meat consumption was at the heart of the problem. And instead sought a solution in which they could produce more meat that was more “eco-friendly.” With words like “eco-friendly” an “natural,” however, we observe how Miranda Corporation is able to make people fall in love with these animals, which they’re already looking forward to eating.

The delivery of the message was at times heavy-handed—it became painfully difficult to watch some scenes. The imagery was only moderately graphic, but (coming from someone who has seen slaughterhouse footage) I can attest that it was largely an accurate portrayal of animal agriculture, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), slaughterhouses, and “Big Meat.” And as we’re emotionally invested in Okja, it can be heart wrenching to watch the story unfold.

While the film tackled issues of corporate greed, societies’ addiction to meat, the massive scale and awful ramifications of the meat industry, the takeaway was a bit unclear. As someone who has already chosen to ditch eating meat, it left me asking “what next?” It tied up nicely in a pretty little bow, but not a resolved bow. It felt abrupt and without a larger moral—as if some of what we saw in the film was excusable. I feel as though it missed a mark on really changing consumption patterns. Yet, for omnivores, I wonder if this sort of ending might actually give pause to consider and reflect upon their own actions.

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The portrayal of the animal rights group (who were identified as being members of the real-life  Animal Liberation Front) was both sympathetic and also distancing. Their mission was defended for being staunch pacifists, yet that wasn’t always how the scenes played out. On the other side, the ability to capture the carnist irony of people who celebrate animals only to eat their meat was spot-on. From the little “white lies” that corporations tell to make their products marketable to the super-pig culture (a.k.a. bacon culture) which has folks donning pink piggy gear as they essentially celebrate the slaughter of the animals.

In all, the movie was a roller coaster of emotion—evoking everything from fear and anguish, to excitement, relief, fury, and everything in between. The film tried to tackle a lot of issues—and did so while including diversity among the actors. The depth of Mija and Okja’s bond was well-developed, but still had mysterious gaps. And while I feel as though it clearly painted a picture of a corrupt system, it was incomplete. While resolve would help some people digest the film rather than leave us wondering “what do we do now?”, perhaps it’s precisely this outstanding question that will encourage people to reflect and adjust their own behavior.

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