Okja is the tale of the bond between a young Korean girl and her best friend, a genetically engineered “superpig.” Orphaned and growing up in the mountains with her grandfather, for several years Mija has been taking care of Okja, the product of an agrochemical corporation seeking to create a new line of gargantuan pigs who can serve as superior pork production machines. We even learn from expert tasters who sample a meat biopsy taken from the still-living Okja’s shoulder that her flesh is the best they’ve ever tasted.
Through Mija’s eyes, we come to know Okja — not as a Frankenpig spectacle, but as a fun, smart and brave individual who loves persimmons and will even put herself in jeopardy to save Mija’s life. So when it’s time for Okja to travel to America for a brief stint with stardom — prior to a one-way trip to an industrial slaughter plant — Mija heroically risks everything to try to save her friend.
The story is clearly intended to relay an animal protection message. In fact, filmmaker Bong Joon Ho even ate vegan while doing research for the film. And some of the film’s fictional characters are well-intentioned, if somewhat comically inept and stereotyped, animal rescuers who find a clever way to expose the cruel worlds of animal experimentation and factory farming inside which Okja finds herself trapped.
While the film is sure to inspire compassion for Okja and our heroine Mija, the question that seems most pressing is whether viewers will come away with a feeling that Okja’s personality and charm are somehow unique to her, or whether they’ll see Okja in all the animals suffering on factory farms today.
Where once we saw farm animals as mindless machines, today science has proven that — just like Okja — chickens, pigs, and other farm animals are smart, interesting individuals who share the same spark of life that we do and, most importantly, want to avoid suffering.
As much as viewers will root for Okja to be spared from what Mija’s grandfather calls the animal’s “fate,” most farm animals today would do anything to lead the life she led prior to the peril in which she finds herself. Unlike Okja’s years of romping in the pristine Korean mountains with her friend, most farm animals in America today find themselves locked inside windowless warehouses, crammed shoulder to shoulder, often even confined in cages that prevent them from moving for months on end. Indeed, for most farm animals, slaughter is the best day of their life; the day their suffering finally comes to an end.
Many viewers will certainly come away from this film and acknowledge that there’s a bit of Okja in every animal we know, including those we eat. Rather than seeing Okja merely as a fairy tale about an imaginary animal, I think many will come to question their own relationship to the animals we think of merely as food.
No doubt such a reevaluation of our relationship with animals is needed, and Okja serves as a potent story to help us forge us a path to a kinder, more humane society for all of us, both human and non-human alike.
Paul Shapiro is the vice president of policy engagement for The Humane Society of the United States, and tweets at https://twitter.com/PaulHShapiro.