Review by Charlotte Lisa Hughes
Okja (2017) released on Netflix, has several important messages on human compassion and nonhuman animal suffering through the story of Okja – a genetically modified ‘super-pig’ created alongside a bunch of other super-pigs by the Mirando Corporation. Okja is adopted by Mija and her grandfather in South Korea. They form a strong bond and tender companionship which comes under threat when Okja was rapaciously, albeit inevitably, torn away. As the story unravels, we – as viewers – bear witness to the obstacles and the hurdles endured by Mija as she ventures across the globe in a desperate attempt to rescue Okja from the exploitative grasp of the Mirando Corporation, depicted as part of a ‘Orwellian-style’ global capitalist society. On her travels, Mija meets the activist group, Animal Liberation Front; who assist her in her quest to save Okja.
Indeed, the story of Okja encourages us to think critically about our food systems. It depicts and exposes the burgeoning corporate power that is woven into these food systems. It provides us with an insight into how emotional narratives are constructed and tailored in accordance with corporate and dominant economic interests. It sends an important message with regards to where the current system is heading in a globalised world whereby we are heavily disconnected from the food on our plate and the hands that produce it. It also highlights some of the moral, political and economic implications of consuming nonhuman animal products. This film made me think of the role of emotion and corporate power.
The Mirando Corporation utilize and control emotion that simultaneously mystify the underlying exploitative conditions and covertly ‘capture’ the heart of consumers. A prime example is that of the ‘reunion’ between Okja and Mija after their separation. This emotional reunion is faked and orchestrated for public consumption by CEO Lucy Mirando. The truth of the matter is that Mija is heartbroken by the loss of her friend and is prepared to do anything to see Okja again! Using emotional manipulation the Mirando Corporation crafts a glamorous ‘surface’ narrative which underlines their own interests and, in turn, hides the ‘essential’ reality of pain, despair and exploitation of nonhuman animals.
Mirando’s attempt to manage public emotion and thereby conceal the harm they have cause and inflict rings true. Narratives with ‘cosy’ emotional resonances are designed by corporations as marketing ploys. This is obvious in, for example, McDonald’s (‘Ronald McDonald’ character and ‘Happy Meals’), Haribo (‘kids and grown-ups love it so, the happy world of Haribo’), Dairylea (‘Happy Cow’) and so on. In turn, these narratives distract the consumer and transform acts of violence into tasteful commodities.
The film also demonstrates how emotion has a positive role to play as the viewer is encouraged to feel compassion towards Okja. In the film this compassion arises spontaneously out of the unscripted relationship between Okja and Mija. In some senses this is because Okja is ‘humanized’. We feel compassion towards Okja because of Okja’s striking similarities to human animals. Okja has a name, Okja experiences fear (note: the scene where Okja is running from her captors) and Okja feels sadness (note: the scene where Okja is crying). This processes of ‘humanizing’ nonhuman animals has been explored with regards to human animal compassion by Mason and McCarthy (2016). As they put it, it is “harder to kill a friend, and proper names humanize”. Like our pets, we understand that they have feelings, are aware of their surroundings, feel pain, and we give them names. How we can feel compassion for nonhuman animals is an interesting theme and one that will shape our future with nonhuman species.
What is also interesting to note is the public’s reaction when the Animal Liberation Front play the footage extracted from a hidden camera that was planted in Okja in order to reveal the atrocities that were going on at the hands of the Mirando Corporation. The audience began to scream, and Lucy Mirando yells “get it off the screen” as the reality is exposed and the happy emotional machinations are destroyed. There is no doubt that the meat, dairy and egg industries have a compelling interest in managing emotion around nonhuman animals.
Under advanced capitalism, large corporations have the protective arm of the state at their disposal when it comes to promoting and protecting these interests. For example, we see how the military and the police intervene when Mija and the Animal Liberation Front sabotage the ‘reunion’ and try to rescue Okja from slaughter. Indeed, they side with the Mirando Corporation. The police and the military chase Mija and members of the Animal Liberation Front and inflict violence on them. Note the scene when Mija and the Animal Liberation Front are described by Lucy Mirando’s sister as a bunch of “hooligans delaying the production line”!
“They’ll eat it if it’s cheap,” snaps CEO Lucy Mirando in a telling scene after she’s made aware of ‘public discomfort’ surrounding her organisation’s meat products. This public discomfort is a clear reflection of the alienation that the consumer has from the products that it consumes but also probes us to question how responsible we are as consumers. The film encourages questions about where our food comes from, and how it is produced. Production and the processing of foodstuffs takes place behind the concrete walls of laboratories, factories and slaughterhouses located far away from the living environment of most people and remote parts of the globe.
A paradox in our emotional relationship with nonhuman animals is exemplified in when Dr Johnny – the face of the Mirando Corporation – is caught on the hidden camera saying “I am an animal lover” and appears conflicted as he conducts harsh experiments in the name of corporate interests. Here the conflict and ambivalence between morality and compassion on the one hand, and corporate interests on the other, is clear. We see this all around us in our everyday lives; some animals we share our beds with and others we have on our plate. We donate money to charities that help some animals whilst sitting on sofas and wearing shoes made from the skin of other animals. In other words, sensitivities to other animals suffering and pain has become ‘heightened’ in some ways and ‘rationalized’ in others. The story of Okja perfectly captures this issue and inspires us to be mindful of how corporate power is woven into our everyday feelings and objects.