Okja: Worth Watching, but Not For the Reasons You Think
Guest post by Frances McCormack and Alan O’Reilly
[SPOILER ALERT: details about the movie discussed below]
Hailed by animal advocates as a vegan movie that will change the way many people view animals, Okja, which is now screening on Netflix, is far from that. Although the film is worth watching, with moments of comedy and poignancy, and with a powerful and understated performance from Ahn Seo-Hyun in the role of Mija, this film does not set out to bring people to veganism, doesn’t convey a vegan message, and never intended to.
Throughout the film, animals are consumed with no moral questions raised. Okja, in an early scene, helps Mija catch fishes for her dinner, and we see one fish writhing and then being consumed. Mija’s grandfather prepares for her a chicken stew (her favourite dish, we’re told) from the hens he farms.
Director Bong Joon-Ho, in an interview with the Independent, states that “I don’t have a problem with meat consumption itself, but I do want my audience to consider, at least once, where the food on their plate comes from.” Similarly, the co-writer, Jon Ronson, in an interview with Newsweek, asserts that the movie is neither an anti-meat polemic nor an anti-factory-farming film.
Not even the “animal activists” in the film—valorised but lightly comedic members of the ALF—are vegans. Silver, who is fasting to reduce his carbon footprint when we meet him, later eats some Super Pig Jerky in order to maintain his cover during a parade in Okja’s honour. While the conditions and suffering farmed animals endure is touched upon, veganism as the necessary means to address the injustice of all animal exploitation and use is not specified. In fact, veganism is not mentioned in the film at all.
But the main problem here is the nature of Okja. Not in any way similar to a real pig, she looks like a hippopotamus with human teeth, canine ears, and some of the facial features of Falkor the Luck Dragon. She also seems to be able to at least understand human language, and in a later scene in the movie she appears to whisper to Mija, who smiles in understanding. Okja and her kind are most definitely not representative of the domesticated, farmed pigs that we use for food—they are marked off as special and different from the opening scenes of the film.
And, ultimately, it is Mija’s love for Okja that is the reason for the audience’s concern for this super pig. The character of Mija is so well portrayed by Ahn Seo-Hyun that she instantly elicits the viewer’s empathy—so much so that we are relieved to find that it is not Okja but another super pig who has been stunned in the slaughterhouse. In the scenes depicting the progress of the animals up the slaughterhouse ramp, our point of view is firmly fixed on Mija’s reaction, and we feel because she feels.
It’s impossible to be able to imagine how a nonvegan might view this film, but there is no overtly vegan message—co-writer Jon Ronson has explicitly stated that that was not his or Bong Joon-Ho’s intention—and perhaps the moral confusion of the film is best seen in the closing scenes as a super piglet, rescued from the slaughterhouse, cavorts in Mija’s grandfather’s yard, scaring the chickens. The wide-angled lens used keeps us at a remove from these other animals, and no question remains as to whether they will continue to be farmed and served for supper. Okja is special because she exists at once as mythical beast and friend. The chickens, however, are merely chickens.
While Okja is a beautifully filmed, well acted movie, and while we recommend it for its entertainment value, claims of its veganising power are wildly overrated. Even where a cultural artefact conveys moral concern for an animal or for some animals, all of this is hollow without an unequivocal vegan message.
Watch Okja, but don’t expect it to do your vegan advocacy on your behalf, because if you do you’ll likely be disappointed.