How Okja combines two Netflix trends to make the ultimate vegetarian film

Why the superpig flick is the perfect fit for Netflix.

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Bong Joon-ho’s Okja – a film about a young girl and her best friend, a genetically modified pig bred for its meat – was met with controversy when it premiered at Cannes this year. It was booed after technical problems affected its screening, but the real outrage was over whether Netflix, as a home video streaming service, should be allowed to screen at a prestigious film festival at all. Shortly after two Netflix films were accepted by the festival, the board suddenly changed their selection rules to prevent a “new operator” hindering the festival’s “support of the traditional mode of exhibition of cinema in France and in the world.” But whether you balk at the thought of popular films never getting a proper theatrical release, Okja is the perfect fit for Netflix.

Netflix loves animals. Don’t believe me? Try checking out the animal-specific genre the streaming service has hidden in its system. There, you’ll find all manner of kid-befriends-animal movies. Horse movies (from Storm Rider to Gift Horse to, yes, Rodeo & Juliet) seem particularly popular of late on the US version of the site. There, too, are Paulie and Lassie, but if those don’t float your boat, what about Air Bud? Netlix carries all five (yes, five!) films that involve a physically gifted dog turn his paws to increasingly unlikely sports – descriptions include: The prolifically athletic pooch tries his paw at yet another sport… and finds himself framed for robbery!

There are classics there, too: Charlotte’s Web, Chicken Run, Babe. The kinds of films that have inspired generations of meat-eating kids to embrace vegetarianism well into adulthood. Take 1995’s Babe (based on Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig): James Cromwell, who played the film’s kindly farmer, was so moved by the animals on set that he became a hardcore vegan after some years as a casual vegetarian while, the Vegetarian Times reported that after the film’s release, sales of pork had significantly dropped. So, too are there many accounts of Charlotte’s Web turning readers and audiences vegetarian.

Okja slots neatly into that mix. We see 14-year-old Mija and Okja play together in idyllic rural Korea, where Okja fishes, gathers fruit and, of course, protects her human pal. We awwww as Okja spoons Mija to sleep, laugh as Mija gently encoruages Okja to release explosive poos, gasp as Okja saves Mija from life-threatening dangers. We are thrilled as villains and heroes alike chase the superpig  through the rabbit warrens of Seoul’s  underground shopping malls. But Okja is half save-the-superpig family-friendly romp, and half horrifying meat industry satire.

Netflix is also home to a thriving subgenre of films aimed at adults that expose the dark side of meat-eating. Documentaries like Blackfish, The Cove, Cowspiracy, and Food Inc are all available to stream on the service, and have developed a cult following as a result. All expose the systematic horrors at the heart of human relationships with animals: the extreme cruelty of the industrialised meat industry, or the corruption that reaches even the highest levels of government when big corporations stand to profit from animal mistreatment. Many end up as intimate portraits of corporate hypocrisy – a thread that runs throughout Okja.

Okja is just as concerned with this aspect of human-animal relations as it is with zooming in on the sad eyes of the superpig herself. It opens with a speech from Lucy Mirando (a blonde Tilda Swinton in girlish braces), the CEO of the “Mirando Corporation”, who is trying to change the face of a toxic company. She talks of “reclaiming” the space of her factory “now the rotten CEOs are gone”, ties her company mission (selling meat?) to the problem of global hunger, and repeatedly uses vague terms like “natural” and “traditional”. “It's Mirando’s new era with me,” she says warmly, “and with new core values: environment and life.”

When Okja escapes the Mirando Corporation’s clutches and runs riot in Seoul, Okja satirises how seriously corporations take their PR with a shot modelled on the Osama Bin Laden “Situation Room” photograph. The funniest dialogue in the movie comes from the following crisis meeting, where Lucy Mirando wrings her hands over the state of the company, defending her decision to attend a course called “Unleash Your Calling” (“at a highly-respected institute for the advancement of human potential where many a forward-looking CEO go!”), criticising her sister for dumping toxic waste in “Moose Lake” with (“the only lake ever to explode –  well done, Nancy”), and quoting decade-old Slate thinkpieces about her brand (“I mean, these are journalists that never write about pigs!”) Her obsession with insincere branding – “I was visualizing ways of turning the most hated agrochemical company in the world into the most likable miracle pig-rearing company!” – feels grimly familiar.

But the most searing parallels with real-life animal cruelty come in the film’s final 20 minutes, set at the superpig superslaughterhouse. We see Okja’s ovine cousins crowded in a concentration camp-esque paddock, before being shot with a bolt gun, decapitated, strung from the ceiling and sliced into pieces. It’s bloody and haunting – and has caused some controversy thanks to unsuspecting parents sitting down to watch Okja with their young children.

But we have seen this before. Really, the most fruitful comparison is for Okja is Watership Down: cute animals, a less-than-subtle message about the horrors of human evil and our impact on the natural world, the screams of traumatised children echoing in the distance. And what scarring children’s classic is Netflix remaking in the very near future? Watership Down. So next time you switch on the streaming service, make sure you spit out the sausages first.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.