At first glance, Korean director Bong Joon-Ho's latest feature for Netflix is a love story between a young girl and her beloved pet. But just as Ho's last big North American film, Snowpiercer, was about capitalism's dire effects on our physical environment and climate change's resulting class war, Okja is a searing look at the environmental and cultural impact of our mass production and consumption of meat.
We first encounter the super pigs at the center of the film at an unveiling of the Mirando Corporation's latest attempt at image resurrection. Mirando's CEO, played brilliantly by Joon-Ho's muse, Tilda Swinton, is hosting a worldwide contest promoting organic, naturally grown meat that will change the public's perception of her company, which operates a GMO meat market. Several "super pigs" are sent around the world to farmers who will love and care for them and after a decade, the best pig will be crowned and, well, eaten. The educated consumer gets to feel good about the food they eat, while Mirando gets to appear environmentally conscious, as these creatures are alleged to have a small ecological footprint and can feed hundreds more people than the average pig, cow, or chicken.
Of course, this being a Joon-Ho production, things are not as they appear at Mirando. In fact, the reality of what they're producing and what people are inevitably eating is beyond grim. A sadistic, bloody, hellscape that will leave viewers feeling angry, nauseous, and meat-averse. Joon-Ho himself became a temporary vegan after spending time at a large slaughterhouse to do research for the film. "It's the smell," he told me, that was the hardest thing to forget.
The message of the film is certainly not subtle, but neither was Snowpiercer's. While the latter film divided critics, I found the movie intelligent, well-executed, and provocative. It truly announced the director as an exciting, experimental voice in international cinema. And through Okja Joon-Ho continues to cultivate important conversations about our relationships with capitalism, consumption, and one another through lush, epic films that feel unavoidably relevant.
Plus, I also stopped eating meat (for a couple of days) after seeing Okja. The impact is real.
I chatted with the director over the phone on a recent press tour about his brief stint in veganism and whether humanity is really and truly irreversibly fucked.
VICE: Tell me where the idea for the film came from.
Bong Joon-Ho: So every Sunday, there's an animal TV show that I like watching. It's a TV program in Korea where they interestingly portray the relationship between people and animals, and I received a lot of inspiration from it. These two aspects of animals seem to coexist. On the one hand, they're like our family when they are pets. But on the other hand, if you've been to the supermarket, you can see they're sold in parts as feed products. And these two aspects coexist without much friction. But in the viewpoint of the animal, it's the same animal, but some get to be the family or friends of humans, and some have to end up as their food. And I wanted to portray this from the viewpoint of an animal.
You actually went to a slaughterhouse as part of your research. What was that experience like? That penultimate scene in the film is just so shocking. How much of that is drawn from the real thing?
It's incredibly shocking. In actuality, I couldn't even get one-tenth of the detail of the real slaughterhouse into the film. It was such an overwhelming and traumatic experience. First and foremost, you're in awe and shocked by the scale and size of the plant. It's five times bigger than a soccer stadium. You witness the pipelines and mechanics developed just for this slaughterhouse, and it's nothing short of an automated metallic empire that they've created. You can't help but think that this relationship between man and animal hasn't been like this—this must have been a very recent endeavor where only under the capitalist regime we put animals through all this.
After watching the film, I really felt like I would never eat meat again. Did you have a similar experience?
After I visited the slaughterhouse, I turned to veganism for two months. It wasn't necessarily a political or philosophical statement; it was just an instinctual, physical reaction to the smell and just the experience I had there. However, converting the audience to veganism wasn't my goal. If you notice the protagonist of the film, her favorite food is chicken stew. What I do find problematic and what I do want to take a jab at is how humans include animals in this mass-production system in the capitalistic era.
And that reminded me a lot of the relationship between humans and capitalism in Snowpiercer as well. Do you see a philosophical relationship between the two films?
Yes, both films touch on capitalism. In the case of Snowpiercer, the capitalistic empire is expressed as a train, and it touches upon how we blindly follow technology in the era of capitalism. In the case of Okja, they try to create a new product via genetic modification, but whether it's safe, nobody knows.
Do you think we have it in us to moderate our behavior when it comes to capitalism? Can we control ourselves whether it's through mass production or reliance on technology?
I don't think it will be easy; it's always difficult to fight the stream and tide of capitalism, but we can't stay pessimistic forever. We always have to fight for change, strive for change, and strive to make a crack in the wall of capitalism. I do believe there is hope.
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