Star literature eid special issue, 2018
Okja: A meat-lover's nightmare
Don't watch Okja if you are one of those with big plans of making the best out of all the surplus meat that will dip into your deep fridge. It will make you hate yourself for your meat eating, environment killing gastronomic habit. Even though the chances of having a non-kosher food as a palatable item during these holy days are slim, the presence of a genetically modified giant creature in a bucolic paradise will make you fall in love with an unlikely creature—a pig! And if you have already watched the 2017 movie by the South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, now is the time for you to reflect on a David and Goliath moment when a brave girl decided to take a Hamletesque “arms against a sea of troubles.” While on a philosophic mood, you can even pursue the trail of thought to connect it to the recent events when our brave school children took to the streets, rather naively, to fix the system that displayed an error sign. Just like their derring-do met the conspiracy of anarchists, spin doctors, and media circus, Mija's attempt to save her friend meets a similar fate. Mija, a 13-year-old south Korean girl traveled to New York in search of her lost pet Okja, and became involved in an intrigue of corporate greed, animal right group's anarchy, and instant media gratification mania.
When Netflix touted it as one of the most watched movies in 2017, I remember being glued to my phone screen with only one regret. I wish I could watch the digital deftness and poignant puppetry of Bong Joon-ho's sci-fi movie on a big screen. With Okja, along with another movie, Netflix broke fresh ground by becoming the first streaming service to produce movies to be adjudicated by the pundits at Palme d'Or. Not everyone was excited to have a small screen movie taking such a giant leap. The president of Cannes film festival made his position clear. “The size of the screen should not be smaller than the chair you're sitting in. It should not be part of your everyday setting,” the Spanish filmmaker said. “You must be small and humble in front of the image that's here.”
Interestingly, Okja is the story of an oversized pig, genetically modified by Mirando Corporation. The CEO of the company in its effort to revamp its company's image sends away 10 piglets to different locations to find an eco-friendly solution for meat crisis. A South Korean farmer and her granddaughter Mija raise this pig and develop a heart-warming bond with what turns out to be a gentle giant. Okja, the pig-like creature, is a strange mix of a canine and a porcine. Mija and Okja grew up in the countryside of Gangwon Province in Korea for 10 years until one day, Mirando Corporation decides to take Okja back to the US. Mija set off a daring journey to retrieve her animal friend, and while in Seoul found herself befriended by a radical animal rights group, Animal Liberation Front (ALF).
The plot so far follows the mainstream children adventure movie such as ET or Free Willy. The presence of the corporate giants, the media pundits, and extreme animal rights group (not to mention the invectives aplenty) change the dynamics, and the small screen movie starts projecting a larger than life moment that Cannes Jury has been unwilling to admit. The movie is cleverly made to create a pastiche. On the one hand, Mija's grandfather lives deep inside the mountains in a traditional setting where physical nature (the mountainous terrain) and human nature (love, empathy, and compassion) contribute to the growth of Okja. The Mirando Corporation, on the other hand, was built by a cruel businessman, Lucy Mirando's grandfather. Lucy lives is in the concrete jungle of Manhattan where life is complicated by the obsession of consumption.
Okja was part of a humanizing project spin-doctored by the heartless Mirando Corporation with the evil twins Lucy and Nancy Mirando at the helm. Their paid zoologist runs a series of TV programs on the growth of the ten piglets that were once distributed among farmers across the world.
His report on Okja's phenomenal growth prompts the corporation to bring Okja back to their lab in New York. Mija finds help from the ALF led by a man named Jay. With the help of a Korean translator K, jay and his crew convinced Mija that both Okja and Mija should go to New York to expose the injustices done to animals. Although she did not consent, the Korean translator—a member of the ALF team—deliberately mistranslated her words. Before the group jumped from the truck carrying Okja into Han River, K says in Korean, “Mija! Also, my name is Koo Soon-bum.” The sub-title for the Anglophone audience, however, read: “Mija! Try learning English. It opens new doors!” It is a piece of advice that every Korean student hears just like students in our part of the world. Mija's first attempt to leave her known territory and to enter the unknown is met with linguistic imperialism in a globalized world where the supremacy of English is taken for granted. The film-maker Bong Joon-ho is probably having a private joke in a movie script that he co-wrote with an American writer. To beef it up, he even makes K wear a tattoo in his hand, saying, “Translations are sacred.”
Suddenly, we become aware of the larger, albeit symbolic, scheme of things. Okja was transplanted in a Korean countryside as nothing more than a future investment by the Mirando Corporation. The ALF wants to exploit Okja as a mole in the system by transplanting secret camera in her. But the moment a terrified Okja starts running through a busy Seoul literally like a bull in a China house, the multinational Company watches the power of its beast in horror. Sitting in its Corporate office, the top management and its mercenary security service watch the carnage in a shot that mimics the photograph of president Obama and his foreign secretary Hilary Clinton sitting together in White House Situation Room to watch the capturing of Bin Laden. The political allegory goes on to show the unholy alliance between the State and multinational companies. Mirando enters into a contract with the NYPD to engage their private mercenaries (Black-Chalk) to suppress the demonstrations of the animal rights movement. The name connotes the employment of the private army by the US, Blackwater in Iraq.
The White House photograph was fed to the media to show how the State was on top of things despite their virtual distance. They had no real connection with the actuality of events. In a mise-en-scene (movie within a movie), we watch the corporate agencies watching a runaway giant. Okja, however, drew more empathy from the audience who could not wait to see her back in the Edenic landscape while being united with Mija. While the success for the corporation involved containing the situation, Mija and ALF had to violate rules to bring back the peace in which we first met Okja. The humanizing of Okja thus dehumanizes both government and corporations.
The cruelty continues once Okja is brought back to New York lab where she is forcibly bred, and then a slice of her meat is exerted by the lab technician to sample the quality of her meat. The secret camera inserted in Okja brings the animal cruelty to the fore, unleashing riot everywhere. The animal rights activists are arrested and Okja somehow finds herself in the slaughterhouse. The uproar sees a change in the top management of the corporation; one sister replaces the other, but the decision to slaughter Okja remains. Eventually, Mija manages to buy Okja back from Lucy with the small gold pig that her grandfather has given her earlier.
The sci-fi ends in a fairy tale mode as we find Okja back in the South Korean mountains with a super piglet that they managed to salvage from the slaughter house. A dying mother pig pushes the piglet out of the fence that Okja hides in her mouth and smuggles out of the slaughter house. The movie makes no secret of its disgust against assembly line harvesting of animals for meat production. The harrowing details will make you cringe and make you question your position in the food chain. The dark comedy is not only about consuming animals that are blown out of proportion but also about the animals that we are surrounded by as well as the animal instinct that we need to survive the onslaught of animals. Maybe, at the end of the movie, you will heave a sigh of relief and say: being an animal is not bad after all! You don't need to kill it. You just need to learn to live with it.
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English (on leave), University of Dhaka. Currently he is the Head of the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB