A Pig Born a Commodity, Raised as a Friend in Neflix’s Okja
Okja is a tale of an interspecies friendship between a young Korean girl and a genetically engineered “super pig” that, despite its star-studded cast, feels like an unlikely blockbuster hit. Indeed, according to Netflix’s algorithms, I shouldn’t even like it—it’s only a 56% match based on my viewing history. Yet it debuted to rave reviews: The Atlantic called it a “Must-See” and The New York Times named it a Critic’s Pick film. I was charmed.
Part of Okja’s unexpected appeal is the way in which it defies categorization, shifting between bizarre satire and sweet fable. Perhaps that is why it so effectively challenges the categorization of non-human animals, with important implications for how we befriend, love, kill, and eat them.
Written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, the film is as campy and unhinged as it is charming and genuine. Okja opens with an enthusiastic Tilda Swinton as head of Mirando, a fictional agricultural conglomerate, in braces and platinum blonde hair promoting a global competition in which “super piglets” will be raised by traditional farming methods. After Swinton’s flashy and over-the-top performance before an eager audience, the film cuts to ten years later, to a lush forested mountaintop near Seoul, where one super pig, Okja, capers adorably with the young girl who has raised her. Okja is a giant, gentle creature who acts more like how we might expect a dog to behave than a pig. Okja and the girl, Mija, amble along the forest’s green paths together, nap together, and get into scrapes together. Okja even saves Mija’s life, heroically and bravely, using excellent problem-solving skills. The animal’s intelligence is only matched by her sweetness. Their friendship, however, is ill-fated.
Okja is far from the first film about human-pig friendships to trouble the categorization of pigs as food, which is oddly both a deeply established practice and a quite precarious idea. We know that pigs are highly intelligent and that they are similar to humans in their diet and physiology. Yet they tend to transgress boundaries in the cultural imagination through their exceptionalism rather than through the problematizing way we think about pigs in general: the eponymous Babe herds sheep and Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web becomes “SOME PIG” and achieves local fame. In each case the pig has to be something other, something more—a really special pig—to justify its exclusion from the category of edible.
Okja takes a slightly different approach. The film allows the super pig to slide in and out of the categories of friend, food, and sacrifice, to jarring and powerful effect.
When a team of Mirando scientists arrives to evaluate Okja, Mija is tricked into giving up the super pig by her well-meaning (and contractually obliged) grandfather. But Mija is determined to get Okja back, and this indignant determination and resolve is the thread that carries the plot forward throughout the film. Even when Mija’s grandfather tries to get Mija to see Okja as meat (pointing to a picture of Okja: “Blade shoulder, spare rib, hock—get it? This is what will happen to her… Fate.”) Mija rejects this interpretation and heads to Seoul to retrieve her friend. We see Mija next riding an escalator in Seoul, her red jacket contrasting with the black coats of everyone around her. She is alone, by herself in the city as well as in her righteous mission, but she is undeterred.
Mija finds Okja chained and being loaded into a semi truck, slapped and prodded and treated, well, “like an animal,” which is a jarring visual change from viewing her as Mija’s intelligent, compassionate, and gentle companion. They are soon joined by activists from the Animal Liberation Front, who—in distinctly monkeywrench style—inexpertly wield wire cutters to stage a rescue mission. Okja escapes into a subway tunnel with Mija following closely behind. The animal rights activists successfully fend off Mirando’s henchmen with such whimsical tactics as using umbrellas to block tranquilizer darts and spilling marbles to trip would-be pursuers.
While viewers may be relieved to see Mirando’s plans foiled, it soon becomes clear that the activists have their own agenda. They, like Mirando and even Mija’s grandfather, cannot be fully trusted. Their plan wasn’t actually to rescue Okja, but to outfit her with a hidden camera and let the company retake her as part of a larger scheme to prevent supermarkets from being filled with “dog food, hot dogs, bacon, and jerky” made from the flesh of super pigs like Okja. Mija is once again betrayed, and Okja is recaptured by Mirando. She is taken to a secret lab, bred, and mistreated by the eccentric television personality and veterinarian “Dr. Johnny” Wilcox, played by an absurd Jake Gyllenhaal who cries “I love animals” while taking “meat” samples from the living and unanaesthetized Okja.
While I won’t spoil the film’s ending, peril and rescues abound. Mija faces a barrage of lies and betrayals, from her grandfather, who says they’ve bought Okja from the company, to the Animal Liberation Front member who mistranslates Mija’s request to bring Okja back to the mountains as, instead, consent to use Okja to infiltrate the secret lab. Everyone is a caricature: Swinton’s Lucy Mirando as an hysterical corporate egomaniac, the Animal Liberation Front as a group of fractured ideologues whose mission constantly threatens to overtake their values, and Gyllenhaal’s narcissistic Dr. Johnny.
Everyone, that is, except for Mija and Okja.
It is the bond between girl and pig that drives this film, and they get to be whole, thoughtful beings whose emotions are not overdrawn or made ridiculous. The stability of this bond, and Mija’s insistence that Okja return home with her as her friend, contrasts painfully with the clear instability of Okja’s status. While to Mija she is a friend, she is meat to Mirando, and a sacrifice to a larger cause to the Animal Liberation Front. Her categorization is utterly dependent on the power relations among the humans who hold these conflicting ideas, to whom she is tied.
In her 2002 book Animal, Erica Fudge writes that the term “animal” itself “produces a relation as much as it signifies one.” By grouping all non-humans together, the term “animal” lumps pets, animals raised for meat, experimentation subjects, and anthropomorphic children’s book characters into an uncomfortably singular category. “How,” Fudge asks, “can we continue to treat both variously cruelly and kindly what we conceptualize as the same?” As Okja demonstrates, a single animal can also fall into multiple categories, to distressing effect, as each category implies an entirely different set of social relations to that creature, and ideas about self and other.
To be sure, recategorizing any animal entails its own particular sets of challenges and traumas. For example, Rosemary-Claire Collard’s work on the “lively commodities” of exotic pets finds that making wild animals into companion commodities requires severing their own ecological networks of provisioning and replacing these with human care systems. Likewise, changing them from commodities into wild animals once again requires an intentional severing of human ties. For animals produced for industrial agriculture, the process of making them into commodities begins well before birth, indeed before conception. They are designed to produce materials for human consumption, in ways that make treating them as something other than a commodity deeply challenging. Turkeys bred to put on weight rapidly for slaughter at a young age, for example, suffer from bones, organs, and feet that cannot support their own body weight later in life. In Okja’s case, legal obligations and the investment of global agribusiness meant that she was born a commodity. Those ties would prove tricky to sever, indeed.
Friend, commodity, meat, experiment, sacrifice—these are impermanent states of being.
Okja is a fun watch, though not a light one. More importantly, it offers up a poignant lesson about the contextual nature of our relationships with non-human animals. Friend, commodity, meat, experiment, sacrifice—these are impermanent states of being that are relational and highly conditional. Each of these involves a process in which an animal is made to be one or another of these, and any can change. Despite the stickiness of these categories, a commodity can be decommodified, a friend can become meat, a sacrifice can be saved.
Okja is masterful in making us care deeply about Okja’s status as Mija’s friend, such that slippages toward these other categories are upsetting. Okja matters to us because she matters to Mija, and because they matter to each other.
Featured image: Mija holds up a childhood photo of Okja. Image from Netflix.
Rachel Boothby is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former managing editor of Edge Effects. She studies the cultural geography of the modern US food system from the home to industrial meat processing. Her dissertation on the twentieth century consumption of pigs lies at the intersection of material culture, animal studies, and environmental history. Website. Contact.