On its surface, Okja, which is out on Netflix today, is about a young farmer’s daughter named Mija (played by An Seo Hyun) trying to save her pet, Okja, from the clutches of an evil mega-corporation named Mirando. It’s because of Mirando that Okja even exists: she was created in a lab as a more delicious, sustainable, and cost-efficient way of feeding the planet.
But the horror the film captures extends beyond the slaughterhouse Okja is intended to die in. Okja succeeds in rendering global capitalism at its most grotesque and ridiculous, as a machine of perpetual violence and exploitation which we are all, in varying ways, connected to—whether as passive consumers, workers, or even resisters. Whatever your relationship to the system, this film confronts the cost of it.
Okja—directed by Bong Joon-Ho, who has delivered blistering takes on capitalism before with movies like 2014’s Snowpiercer—is hard to pin down. The movie is tender at its heart, but it’s also deeply violent. It feels like a sci-fi fairy tale in its whimsical first act, when Mija and her pig frolic through a picturesque South Korean countryside, and a laugh-out-loud funny satire when Tilda Swinton’s dazzling and deranged head of Mirando is onscreen. But then the dystopian horror kicks in.
Importantly for a film that so often takes flights of fancy, this horror feels grounded in our present reality. Okja the super-pig may be foreign to us, but Mirando, which bears no small resemblance to real-life agricultural giant Monsanto, is terribly familiar. So is the violence associated with it.
There is the violence of the police state and the guerilla warfare counter-culture groups engage in—in this case, a group called the Animal Liberation Front, or ALF. There’s the violence of the food industry, a reality that most Americans are spared even as they consume the fruits of it daily. Then, there’s the more complicated violence of preserving the interests of the company—the sort of violence that’s responsible for David Dao being dragged off a United flight because his plane was overbooked. Mija and her pet are forced to contend with all three, and their bond forms the emotional core of the film.
Appropriately enough for a film about the food industry, the hungers that gnaw at people—the hunger for self-worth; for wealth and notoriety; for job security; for justice—haunt Okja’s characters. In the pursuit of these hungers, they are constantly exploiting others. To the film’s credit, it isn’t just corporate executives who are placed under this microscope. One way or another, everyone is implicated in the violence that Okja’s world perpetuates, from Mirando’s many nameless consumers and workers to the people who resist them.
Swinton’s CEO pushes supposedly conscious, feel-good capitalism, trying to distance herself from her family’s toxic legacy. But no matter how carefully constructed the image, the ends—in this case, a massive industrial slaughterhouse—remain fundamentally the same.
Even ALF, the fictional militant animal rights group, exploits Mija. An un-named character played by Steven Yeun is the only member of the group who can speak Korean, and thus talk to young Mija. He deliberately misinterprets her request to be taken back home, choosing instead to use her for a plan the group has concocted.
Later, when confessing his lie, Yeun’s character is kicked out of the group, but it’s clear that every member of ALF had hoped to follow through with the plan. The answer they heard was the answer they wanted, because their mission was bigger than the life they were supposedly protecting. That the group’s noble intentions don’t prevent them from doing personal harm is a point that feels especially poignant at a time when individuals can find themselves at the center of a social media-fueled political storm at lightning speed, whether or not they have truly consented to it.
In the end, though, the people most implicated are us.
At the film’s climax, one of Mirando’s executives scoffs at the idea that, once the company’s unethical practices are shared, the public will turn on them. “Make it cheap enough and they’ll eat it,” the character responds curtly.
It’s shameful, but it’s true. How many times had I, as a broke college student, and then later as a broke teacher and a broke journalist, grudgingly strolled the aisles of Walmart because I couldn’t afford better? I knew of their shady business practices then, but I did the personal math and reckoned with the moral cost and found it worth it.
This is the realization that strikes you, that certainly struck me, as the film enters its third act—that we are far more like the selfish adults of the film than its heroes. Whether it’s a ticket on United Airlines, a Walmart comforter, or the slab of pork you put in your shopping cart, you’re an extension of a great corporate machine.
In Okja, this is presented as something fundamentally ingrained in our system—not unique to a single culture, country, or organization. Only the child and the beast remain pure. And while we, the audience, may not be able to easily untangle ourselves from the net of corporate capitalism, we can hope that Okja and Mija will emerge unscathed.