Netflix’s ‘Okja’, a story about a super pig, is a must-watch
What our anti-beef activists need to do to stop people from eating the meat is to get Korean director Bong Joon-ho to make an Indian version of his film, Okja, starring a Supercow instead of a Superpig. If anything cures you of eating meat, this film just might be it. Few meats are as tasty as pork is, but Okja will make you regret your dietary choices—and rue the fact that a film like this will never come out of India.
Netflix’s latest release Okja made the news when it was selected to be shown along with Netflix’s The Meyerowitz Stories at the Cannes Film Festival. It caused great heartburn to the uppity Cannes team and viewers who feel that only films made to be released on screen should be shown at the film festival. French laws prohibit a film from streaming services till three years after it is released in theatres. In all this controversy, Netflix didn’t release Okja other than in select theatres. Thankfully, there’s Netflix, which everyone can stream sitting at home.
This is a film which I cannot recommend enough. It is worth watching for both its special effects and its story—a satirical commentary on greed, good intentions, factory farms, humans playing god, chemical testing on animals, animal rights activism, big food corporations who will do anything to make money, and the dependence of animals on us human beings to keep them safe. All tied together in a friendship between a young girl and her pet animal who she loves and lives with.
It’s an inspired tale. And I bow to Bong Joon-ho’s imagination and creativity. The film is set in 2007 and starts at Mirando Corporation, a pharmaceutical conglomerate run by Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando, a clearly unhinged and power-hungry CEO who is taking over the company from her sister, Nancy. She has decided to make her mark and overturn the fortunes of her company by creating a genetically mutated breed of Super Pigs. She sends 26 “superpiglets” to 26 farmers around the world. At a press conference, it is announced that each superpiglet will be bred by these local farmers and in 10 years will take part in a Superpig contest which will be shown across the world. The “face” of this campaign is an equally unhinged animal programme television host, Johnny Wilcox—played to perfection by an almost unrecognizable Jake Gyllenhal.
The film then takes us to 2017 and to an idyllic farm in Korea, where Okja, one of the superpiglets, has been living with a farmer (Byun Hee-Bong) and his granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun), an orphan living with her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong). Mija has been living with Okja since Mija was four, and the bond you see between them is the bond of any human and their pet. Okja, of course, by now looks like a hybrid hippo-pig. And I would urge our filmmakers who use fake wolves and horses, to watch this film simply to learn how to use computer-generated imagery and special effects.
The calm happy lives Mija and Okja are living take a horrendous turn when Gyllenhall and the Mirando Corporation minions arrive and take Okja away to participate in the Superpig contest and ultimately be killed for meat. The film is about Mija following Okja to New York and trying to save her. Enabled admirably by an American animal rights group – which doesn’t believe in violence – called the Animal Liberation Front, led by a young polite man named Jay (Paul Dano). The ALF is everything we hope that Greenpeace and People For Ethical Treatment Of Animals would be, but aren’t. There is no hypocrisy at play here. But even the ALF’s good turn is shown hilariously. Especially their attempts to communicate with the Korean, Mija.
You realise how jaded we are when Dano’s earnest speech on ALF’s credo makes you crack a smile. “We rescue animals from slaughterhouses, and labs, we tear down cages and set them free. This is why we rescued Okja. For 40 years, our group has liberated animals from places of abuse. We inflict economic damage on all those who profit from their misery. We reveal their atrocities and we never harm anyone, human or non-human. That is our 40-year credo.” It is a credo which he insists must be read to Mija for her to understand that ALF is there to help her. One of the ALF members is starving because he’s trying to leave the smallest carbon footprint—and is dying as a result. Because “all food production is exploitative”.
There are some horrific scenes of animal testing, the factory farm with thousands of genetically mutated docile superpigs, the slaughterhouse, and an especially brutal scene involving the friendly and trusting Okja and Gyllenhal’s Wilcox which will chill you to the bone. Swinton as Lucy Mirando will remind you of many business leaders, drunk and deluded by their own power and their belief that they are demigods. At one point, Swinton sums up her vision by saying, “I took nature and science and I synthesized.” We see the ridiculous decisions companies take in the name of image management and crisis communication, —Mirando is the soulless big corporate.
The media is not spared either, with new reports being quoted as writing, “Lucy Mirando is making us fall in love with a creature which we are already looking forward to eating.”
The film also has a plethora of highly entertaining chase scenes, one of which is set to the song, You fill up my senses. And this is where the film succeeds. Because it uses humour, extremely nuanced storytelling techniques and tremendous actors to get across its message. Not once does the film promote vegetarianism, but I can’t imagine many people—including me—sitting down to a meal of sausages or steak without picturing Okja’s human eyes looking at them.
So drop the sausage, cancel your weekend plans and watch Okja on Netflix. You shall be devastated and then pleased.