This wild, emotional, funny and upsetting film is a powerful attack on capitalism through the prism of the food industry.
It begins in 2007 with a press conference held by Mirando Corp — a global food production company that is rebranding itself as eco-friendly and ethical under the leadership of Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) in contrast to her father and sister. The company has “bred” (read: genetically modified) a new superpig. Piglets have been sent out to the company’s 26 locations across the globe, where they will be raised by ordinary families. This pig, she claims, will solve world hunger — as the Isley Brothers’ “Harvest for the World” plays in the background.
Ten years later we meet a fully grown superpig, Okja — something between a pig, a manatee and a hippo, but much bigger — and Mija (Seohyun An), the teenage girl who has grown up with her in rural Korea. Their relationship is close — they understand and look out for each other, as they collect fruit and fish for dinner with Mija’s grandfather. Okja is brilliantly conceived in CGI — she appears heavy and made of flesh. Her eyes are expressive and her demeanour changes with her mood.
When the corporation comes to collect Okja and take her back to New York it ruptures the idyllic existence Mija and Okja had known. Mija resolves to rescue Okja and bring her home — first travelling to Seoul and then New York. And as soon as she sets foot in the city everything changes. We later see Okja staring out of a caged lorry at a vast graveyard; the film cuts to the Manhattan skyline, the tower blocks resembling tombstones.
And this is where the real horror begins. Scenes in the slaughterhouse and the meat packing factory are graphic.
Mija meets a group of Animal Liberation Front activists, who are portrayed as mostly moral and “good guys”, but also somewhat ineffectual. The film does not shy away from showing the violence of corporations and the state against protesters.
Running through the film is this notion of “good” capitalism versus “bad” — but this distinction is shown to be entirely cosmetic. Lucy Mirando is pushed out for her sister, Nancy. But she is also played by Tilda Swinton — good and bad capitalism are literally the same person. The first time we see them together one lights her cigarette from the other’s, linking them in an unbroken line.
Okja is thrilling, fast moving and bizarre. It’s certainly not for young children (it is rated 15), but it’s a convincing metaphor for how capitalism destroys the metabolism between human and nature, and human and human.