What is it we fear most in our food supply in the post-industrial West? Food shortages? Industrialized food? Genetic manipulation? Ecological disaster? Globalized food systems? The idea that we are either in or rapidly approaching some sort of food-related dystopia is certainly widespread, yet relatively hard to define. Wandering the aisles of American and European supermarkets, overflowing with astonishing plenty, it is hard to imagine what fuels our fears. Yet there is no doubt that many people have at least a nagging sense that something is deeply awry. There is a huge literature to reinforce those fears, of course, and a filmography to stoke our imaginations.
The film Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho, puts many of our contemporary fears into one neat package. It is the story of a big corporation’s effort to develop and market a genetically modified pig in a way that will make it appealing to the masses (an effort remarkably similar to Chipotle’s little films). To do this, the company distributes baby pigs to farmers around the world, who will raise them for ten years. The pigs, now “localized” thanks to the farmers, would then be celebrated and turned into food. The film focuses on one pig, named Okja, raised in Korea by a young girl, Mija, and her grandfather, in an idyllic mountain setting. The fully-grown Okja dwarfs hippos, but frolics in the forest in a way that is reminiscent of a very large and exceptionally intelligent dog. In fact, Okja is clearly Mija’s companion and not livestock. This proves to be a problem when the corporation comes to collect the pig.
In addition to the first two elements of the food dystopia—the evil corporation that controls our food supply and the genetically modified animal—the film also depicts cruelty to animals by buffoonish corporate scientists and the horrors of industrial slaughterhouses. This being a neo-liberal horror film, the government is present only in the form of police enforcing the will of the corporation (although there are also private mercenary goons in the pay of the corporation, because that too is part of a good dystopia). Okja is taken by the evil corporation, first to Seoul, then to New York, for study, celebration, and marketing. Mija, determined to rescue her friend, sets off in pursuit. She is aided, and betrayed, by a group called the Animal Liberation Front. There is an element of Citizen Ruth in the struggle between the corporation and the ALF activists for Mija’s loyalties.
In the end, capitalism wins, although not in an entirely predictable way. The film is depressing, hopeful, and a little funny. There is no sense that Mija’s struggle to save Okja will prevent the coming food dystopia, even if she may get to carry on her idyllic forest farm life. The film points to the ways we are manipulated by corporations, as they greenwash their products so that we can feel comfortable buying them. It suggests that the efforts of groups like the Animal Liberation Front are engaged in a futile struggle (although this review, from the real ALF, suggests they do not see it that way). It also may raise the hackles of anyone engaged in food science. It might—or might not—be an argument against eating pigs.
No doubt everyone in the film gets what they deserve, except, of course, the pigs. Or maybe not. Show it to your students and see what they think. Since it premiered at the Cannes film festival last spring, it has been available through streaming on Netflix. Be sure to watch until the very end of the credits.