Photo: Jae Hyuk Lee | Netflix
Thought-provoking movies are nothing new to cinema.
The filmmakers want viewers to walk away knowing more — both the good and bad —about their targeted topic.
Sometimes, the issue is pertinent to today.
Sometimes, it’s a tale of warning for the future based on what history has to teach us. “District 9” comes to mind.
Other times, filmmakers take on a current hot-button topic and project it into the future, to a time you can’t place but you know is coming.
That’s how Korean director Bong Joon-ho approached his new film, “Okja.”
What the movie is about
“Okja” is available on the streaming-service Netflix.
It’s the story of Mija (played by actress Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her super-pig, Okja.
Okja’s unique appearance — a pig-hippo hybrid with one nipple, hints of manatee, and piercing, expressive eyes — is like nothing we know today.
Lucy Mirando (played by Tilda Swinton) is the chief executive officer of a company that has created a breed of oversize pigs as an answer to a pressing global problem: A swiftly growing population is depleting the world’s food supply.
The company couches this new food source in feel-good food terms like “all natural” and “GMO-free,” but it’s quite clear how Okja and the super-pigs like her came to be: genetic modification.
After a decade of Mija and Okja living and growing together, Mija is distraught when she learns Mirando’s real intention is that Okja is meant to be food — not a pet — when the company comes to reclaim its property.
What follows is a tale of corporate greed, activist anarchy, and the strength of a bond forged between a human and a genetically modified beast.
What lies beneath all of this, however, are burning questions.
Are genetically modified foods — plant and animal alike — OK?
Does the pressing need to feed a growing population supersede these ethical issues?
A genetically modified future
“Okja,” to put it bluntly, may be difficult for some to watch.
It might be even more difficult to accept that a creation like Okja could be real.
But Bong, who toured cattle slaughterhouses in the United States as research for this film, said it’s not.
“Although the super-pig phenomenon may be fiction at the moment, it's very close to being a reality,” Bong told the Independent. “In Canada, they already made some kind of GM salmon. It's already gotten FDA approval. They are starting to very carefully distribute it in the market. In the process of researching the film, I met and interviewed a PhD student who is developing a GM pig. So, Okja is real. It's actually happening. That's why I rushed making “Okja,” because the real product is coming.”
Taking the good with the bad
As in any debate, some people are considered “good,” while others are considered “bad.”
Bong says his mission with “Okja” isn’t to convince viewers to side with one group over the other.
Mirando Corporation is trying to feed the world’s growing population — a worthy endeavor. However, they’re doing it by questionable means and with less-than-sympathetic characters.
The Animal Liberation Front, an animal welfare and rights organization, appears like a knight on a steed to rescue Okja from certain death. Its intensions seem honest and pure, too. Its methods are a little grayer.
Without saying it, “Okja” forces audiences to consider the debate over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in a broader scope.
Right now, the GMO debate may be about corn, beans, and rice. Tomorrow, it might be about pigs and animal hybrids.
“I wanted Okja to be cute. Big, yet lovely, shy, and introverted. But she is a genetically modified organism and this debate is not restricted to Korea. It is prevalent all over the world,” Bong told the BBC. “It is reasonable to fear the potential disasters and dangers that genetically modified foods may bring.”
The GMO debate
Proponents of GMOs state the foods are designed to make better, stronger crops. That can mean a growing population has a more secure food source for the future.
Opponents say it opens the population up to unknown consequences, both physical and ethical.
“There are people who say the danger of GM foods is being overly exaggerated, but nobody is able to prove their safety either,” Bong told the BBC.
It’s possible viewers aren’t likely walk to away from “Okja” feeling GMOs are tolerable.
“Okja” paints a grim picture of GM foods and the corporations that use them.
Viewers may also walk away a little wary of the meat on their plates. That, Bong said, isn’t necessarily his objective.
“In my movie, Mija’s favorite food is chicken stew. I didn't make this film to oppose meat. Whether one is vegan or not is a matter of individual choice,” Bong explained to the BBC.
Instead, he said he wants audiences to have a better understanding of just how their meat — and their food more broadly — is made so they understand the consequences of choices today and choices in the future.
“We coexist with animals and we should take time to consider their perspective,” Bong said. “How we treat them today is a very recent phenomenon and came to be only after we included them in mass production.”