After watching Okja twice in one day and giving it another day to read up on all the reviews while letting the movie sink in some more, I am ready to review it myself.
Let me start by saying I had seen the movie trailer and poster circulate for some time before the official Netflix release on June 28th 2017. I had some idea of what it was about and was curious how they would portray animal rights, animal liberation in particular the ALF (Animal Liberation Front). At first my thoughts were skeptical, would it be a movie that would only tackle welfarism and let the activists seem like violent terrorists? I was ready for anything.
After 2 hours it had left me with many different emotions, the last 10 minutes were filled with tears, and the movie came full circle, I was positively surprised. Reading a variety of reviews and some click bait headlines, I agreed with some and disagreed with others, there were truths in all, yet somehow I felt it depended on what the writer or viewer was looking for. Was this a vegan movie? Maybe, what matters the most to me is how it makes you feel, the lack of veganism being mentioned doesn’t mean it’s no vegan movie. Story telling does not have to be literal, scenes and gestures don’t have to be spelled out word for word, sometimes powerful messages are portrayed in the most subtle ways. Why so? Because nobody wants to watch a movie where they feel it’s being biased.. Although we all want people to be able to have empathy, we cannot underestimate the large machine and power behind the selling and exploitation of sentient beings. Is one movie going to make it all up for the billions of dollars in yearly advertisings? Most likely not, but to tell a story that is impactful with just the right amount of subtle messaging and powerful imagery, top notch acting and CGI (especially Okja’s expression in her eyes), cannot be undervalued.
In the opening scene we clearly see a corporation that needs a rebranding, and you can detect the wisely selected wording. If you are more aware of the current state of our large scale agriculture and chemical agriculture, you most likely have picked up on many lines. The name and the logo reminded me so much of “Monsanto”. Let’s review what Lucy Mirando’s (The CEO of Mirando Corporation) speech reveals:
Environment, “eco” seems to be the theme, minimal footprint, less feed, producing less excretion. All these points are the exact reflection of our animal agriculture industry’s flaws and always will be. It didn’t take long to uncover the first lie, she said they “miraculously discovered” the Super Pig, which is completely false as you will later realize. Okja her mother and siblings were all created in a lab, they were far from being miraculously discovered. Then lies after lies follow in her speech, “non force natural mating”, as you will have to connect the dots later as the movie progresses and exposes her lies. Lucy calls the piggies “a new species, mother natures gift, a revolution in the livestock industry”, a typical marketing strategy, just like those we are daily exposed to in our own lives. Throughout the film you will discover reflections of our world, even if at times over exaggerated, it is pretty clear it’s not far off from what corporations try to hide and whitewash in our reality.
The bond between Mija, one of Mirando’s selected farmer’s 14 year old granddaughter, and Okja is very strong, as it would be with any 4 year old growing up with a smart, loving and caring companion. They were both young and grew older and closer over the 10 years together (10 years being the time Mirando corporation gave the farmers to raise them before sending them back to the corporation). In a very early scene we see how Okja risks her life to save Mija, a gentle whisper from Mija to Okja after the heroic act shows they have a way of communicating with each other.
I have read that the film is far from being vegan because Mija eats Fish and Chicken in the movie. However, let’s point out that Mija, who has lost her mother and father and is being raised by her single grandfather, has been like many of us, indoctrinated to eat animals (even Okja’s, although she isn’t aware of that at this time), Okja is symbolic to how we are raised with our cats and dog companions, although Mija’s grandfather knows the fait of Okja, as he later on in the movie he explains to her the different cuts of “meat”. Just because a 14 year old farmer’s daughter is eating fish and chicken, would be denying the reality of millions of people growing up eating animal products that later on embraced veganism. It’s a story and the story follows a teenage girl that has compassion for another sibling species from a young age, Mija is a child growing up removed from city life and seems to have little interaction with other people.
Throughout the movie you can see the propaganda. When the “Face of Mirando”, an outdated, narcissistic veterinarian (Dr. Johnny) picks Okja as the winning pig to be featured in Mirando’s festival in New York, you can tell that he is sent to promote the company and highlights the “free range” method of the farmer’s choice to raise Okja. The same as our “humane, free range myth” in advertising is portrayed.
After Okja is being taken from Mija to be transported to Seoul and then to New York, Mija sets out to rescue Okja and bring her home, an action packed chase and break in results in her meeting the ALF group. A group of people who have certain sets of values and one goal to get Okja captured, outfitted with a hidden camera and recaptured by Mirando to end up in the lab for testing. Although Mija is against the plan, the only translator named K lies to the other ALF people for the cause. They want to expose Mirando’s abuse at the lab and to shut them down by causing economic damage. The ALF interference causes a huge media uproar ending with a lorry chase and Mija being dragged off by the authority, resulting in the Mirando corporation needing another PR campaign to get them out of the bad press.
Soon thereafter Mirando corporation starts by planning on bringing Mija from Seoul to New York, using her as the face of Mirando and to reunite her with Okja on stage, pretty much the exact marketing campaign we see with the “farmers love their animals”. Although Mija doesn’t speak English, she notices she is being used by the corporation, yet all she wants is to get Okja back and knows the ALF group has promised to help her at the festival. She’s been told by J from the ALF group to not look back at the screen during the event, because the ALF would showcase the undercover footage of the lab where you see Okja being forcefully mated against her will by a much larger Super Pig Alfonso. Okja also gets probed for meat samples from her muscles by Dr. Johnny who is acting in a very unpredictable way. The lab is dark, disgusting and scarry and exposes the different pigs being tested on, many different from Okja, since Okja is the “Perfect Super Pig” to be shown as the corporate example representing all Super Pigs, omitting that the others suffer from many ailments.
At the event you can see that the ALF group strategically place themselves in different roles at the parade, one of them marches in the parade being given a Super Pig sausage and pretends to take a bite to “fit in”, it is clear that they do not eat animal products and have said they freed animals from slaughterhouses, labs, circus, zoos etc.
Okja is being released from another float onto the one where Mija waits to be reunited. Immediately you notice how Okja’s spirit has been broken from the abuse at the lab, her blood shot eyes, the scars from the probes all over her body and she acts aggressive and angry not even recognizing Mija. Chaos erupts and Okja grabs and bites down onto Mija’s arm, immediately one of the ALF group members named J grabs a rod to strike Okja to release Mija’s arm, Mija grabs the rod and protects Okja, even though she is being bitten. As she whispers into Okja’s ear, you can tell she understands, let’s go and licks Mija’s bleeding wound. Now they race against the time to rescue Okja.
Lucy Mirando’s plan of her reveal and PR event fails and her more despicable twin sister Nancy appears and takes over, immediately focusing on profit, greed and power, where she responds to the negativity of this event in “If it’s cheap they will eat it”. Mirroring again our society, no matter how much undercover footage we reveal, people keep on buying cheap meat because they are constantly reinforced and indoctrinated. Animal products are being shoved in our faces all day long, everywhere we look. Nancy immediately calls for a special ops and private security to capture Okja and all ALF people.
In an earlier scene we saw one ALF group member K, the translator who lied to Mija and to the other ALF group about Mija not wanting to let Okja go into the lab, getting immediately banned from the ALF group after confessing. However he reappears in rescuing Mija and J (the leader of the group) and they barely escape from being captured too. In the lorry they make their way to the “production plant” where they expect Okja to be held.
And here is where the movie took a complete turn for me, if until now it seemed to be over the top, at times humorous or fictional, everything we see from this point forward is what gives this movie it’s strong emotional impact. We see hundreds upon hundreds (if not thousands) of Super Pigs waiting to be forced up a ramp, electric prodded into a building. Mija sees the second pig in line to go up is Okja. As she runs into the building she encounters all workers speaking Spanish, one guy sweeping blood down a drain. She looks up, sees corpses hanging, she looks down she sees cut up body parts on a conveyer belt, and when she finally arrives on the kill floor she watches a Super Pig in the death-contraption being stunned with a bolt gun, the body rolls out of the contraption and falls lifeless onto the side before the next Super Pig within seconds gets forced into the chamber. As the slaughterhouse worker sets the bolt gun to Okja’s head, Mija pleads for her release. Nancy shows up with her corporate entourage, her words are again, the powerful message that many who are aware notice, and others hopefully get subtly influenced.
As Mija asks in the little English she has learned “Why do you want to kill Okja?” Nancy replies: “We can only sell the dead ones. We are hard working business people.” She goes into the different body parts of the animals that are favorited by restaurants and hispanic people and says, “all is edible except the squeals, this is business.” A perfect and honest example of our reality, sentient beings are reduced to commodities and it’s about making money, nobody cares, all the lies that are being told are soon forgotten and all that really matters is keeping people in the dark, their conscious fed with lies and the body parts of once sentient beings cheap and accessible for everyone and everywhere.
Mija offers Nancy a 100% golden pig, that she receives earlier in the movie from her grandfather. Nancy bites down on the gold to make sure it’s real, she gives instructions to release Okja and asks for the client (Mija) and her purchase (Okja) to be escorted safely out.
The next scene from the movie was the one that was the hardest to watch. As Mija and Okja walk alongside thousands of pigs waiting for their brutal death, on the other side of the electric fence, you can feel the energy, the emotions and the pain. Mija does not walk off thinking this was a win or a success, she knows the limited power she has and that this is all she was able to do. Her gaze back to all the Super Pigs is heartbreaking, the screams of all the other pigs is gut-wrenching. As a last chance for a little piglet, being pushed under the electric fence, a selfelss act by possibly the mother pig, to be rescued by Okja and Mija. They immediately hide the piglet so security doesn’t notice, this may be the one little extra part that shows that we would do anything to make people see how important these messages are. At that point the audience would clearly root for the little one and all others to have the same happy ending as Okja.
This being a “kid/teen-friendly” movie it had to have some sort of happy ending, although we all know that overall it mirrors our reality, the animals rescued from the exploitation industry is extremely minimal, it means the world to those individuals but it is nothing in comparison to the 56 billion land animals and trillions of aquatic animals. Those rescue individuals can only serve as ambassadors to create a better world, and that is what Okja is, a small symbol to open peoples hearts and for them to recognize that they have compassion for animals, that they care for them and that they don’t wish them harm. It is a process to unlearn everything we have been told and to go against the status quo every single day, to be true to ourselves and stand up for justice.
In the the final scenes we see utopia, Mija, Okja and the new piglet enjoying life. However, we are left wondering “Is Mija now Vegan?” “will she become an ALF member?” We don’t know, all we know is that Okja can communicate with Mija and the end scene shows Mija and her grandfather enjoying a meal, the first meal they didn’t mention “fish stew” or “chicken stew”, we see greens and rice. As in all story telling, some is left to your interpretation and I will interpret the lack of mentioning of animals as food as a sign that they have changed.
Does it matter if the director, actors, producers are all vegan? It sure would be desirable if they all were, since you would expect them to think more about their own actions after being involved in such a project and hopefully it’s a start. Just like most of us that weren’t born into a vegan world we had many interactions with animal use and exploitation before we made the connection. I can recall so many times I tried to shove all my feelings under the rug, how many times I wished images away and fought the inner feelings of guilt. Although we think we can recall the exact moment we went vegan, I strongly believe there were many instances before, even if subconsciously and in different forms, that ultimately led us to make the conscious and final decision. With the mass advertising influences, obstacles and reinforcement of the exploitation ideology being very strong, it takes exposures like this movie to counteract the constant normalization of violence and exploitation. We are not all fortunate enough to have had the truth explained to us and options available the moment we were born.
Finally my opinion is, this movie wasn’t a regular Hollywood movie, it had many aspects that we never see in the typical run-of-the-mill films, let it sink in, watch it again with your friends and family and each time you may discover something new.