The Pity of Okja

Okja critiques affective labor—but it nonetheless relies on its effects to market animal rights

When Netflix premiered Okja at the Cannes Film Festival in June, the audience booed. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Okja was the first Netflix feature to screen at the festival in competition, and the boos were directed at Netflix’s logo—a red and white insignia no less imposing to French traditionalists than the advertisements for McDonalds that line Parisian metros. The jeers intensified when the screening began in the wrong aspect ratio, as if to prove Netflix’s iconoclastic indifference to the cinema and its gatekeeper, the cinémathèque.1 After its size had been corrected to fit the screen, Okja’s animal rights, anti-agribusiness satire concluded in a four-minute standing ovation. From hysterical jeers to applause no less emphatic, the film’s Cannes reception demonstrates the paradox of its global, techno-capitalist production and its anti-globalist, anti-capitalist narrative. Okja’s critical success depends on this impasse—on the audience’s ability to divorce the film’s narrative from its politics of production. But production and representation can’t be conscientiously uncoupled, as both are informed by profit. And in trying to tell its harrowing story about the sale of mass-produced pork, Okja tells a no less vicious story about what it means to sell mass-produced pathos.

1. The cinémathèque is now quite literally the gatekeeper to Cannes. After a dispute with Netflix about the premiere of Okja, which didn’t have a theatrical release, the festival is now requiring all feature-length competition entries to release their films in theaters.

The film operates at the convergence of computer-generated utopianism and globalist dystopia. Its titular character is a “Super Pig,” a genetically-modified megafauna. The size of an elephant, Okja has been bred as food supply under the auspices of an international competition to raise the world’s most super Super Pig. Set in 26 countries around the world, the contest is the brainchild of agribusiness CEO Lucy Mirando, played by the metamorphic Tilda Swinton. Early in the film, we learn that Okja has won the global Super Pig contest. Her victory is the result of her minimal mutations and, presumably, her free-range lifestyle in the mountains of South Korea, where she is cared for by 14-year-old Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong).

When we first meet Okja, she is galloping through these pristine mountains in a Korean village apparently unmarred by information technology—except, that is, for the Super Pig herself. She is the only machine in sight. Indeed, she is doubly-synthetic: In the world of the film, she is the creation of genetic modification; in the world of the film’s production, she is the creation of digital compositing. Nonetheless, Okja appears as organic as the greenery around her: She farts, burps, shits, and bleeds. In these opening scenes, the pig achieves an organic wholeness that exceeds even the clean lines of Apple products. She achieves the Silicon Valley dream aesthetic: the total interpenetration of the Machine and the Garden. But this seamless, digitally composited biome is ultimately not the film’s most impressive computer-generated feat. After all, these are merely the futuristic effects that make us want to buy the product—the iPhone or Super Pig, as it were. They alone do not make us want to love it or fight for its humanity.

The most potent digital effects in the film play out in the realm of affect, where digital technology and animality are sublimated into a thick, posthumanist pathos. But in Bong Joon-ho’s vision, Okja’s posthumanism doesn’t offer emancipation from the body, as it does for some cyborg fantasists. Rather, the machine-animal is given a body in chains, a body that suffers at the hands of her human captors. With the notable exception of Mija, all of the film’s live-action characters present as cartoonish beasts, while Okja assumes a humanoid affect unrivaled by any Pixar creation. Okja’s relationship with Mija is the principal site of the film’s anthropomorphic energy: The hyper-sentient Super Pig saves Mija when she slips off a cliff; he spoons her to sleep as she massages her with a wooden backscratcher (a ritual usually performed by South Korean married couples); and he even seems to understand her as she whispers in his ear or talks to her over speaker phone.

Okja’s anthropomorphized body—capable of hugs, if not resistance—is manufactured to receive the audience’s pity, while the film’s human agents (from farmers, to machine operators, to capitalists and consumers) warrant indifference or scorn. Swinton’s Mirando can’t seem to find connection—human or otherwise—with anyone. She is too busy crafting a new marketing scheme or signature with which to sign autographs for her carnivorous fans. The meat-eating capitalists, however, are not the only casualties of Okja’s heavy-handed satire. The film’s squad of animal rights activists are likewise presented in two-dimensions as amateurish and self-indulgent. They, too, reveal themselves to be unworthy of sympathy when they craft a scheme to bring down Mirando that requires sending Okja into the belly of the pork industry, haplessly abetting the Super Pig’s rape and near slaughter.

With these live-action buffoons as a backdrop, Okja and Mija’s relationship manufactures sentimentality to scale: The Super Pig serves up a Super Emotional audience response. The burden of this pathos is borne by Mija, whose love for the dirty digital pig is pure—a purity compounded by the bundle of stereotypes that she carries in her compact frame. Lucy Mirando articulates these for us when she plots Mija’s future role as the new face of the Mirando corporation: “She’s young, she’s pretty, she’s female, she’s eco-friendly, and she’s global. She’s a godsend!” The film critiques this corporate cynicism—ridiculing Mirando for exploiting Mija’s humanity—but it nonetheless relies on similar effects to market animal rights.

Indeed, the extreme pathos of the machine-animal is continually displaced onto the film’s East Asian subjects, as they are made witness, unknowing accomplice, or cause of Okja’s persecution. When, for example, the members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) place a chip in Okja’s ear to record and propagandize against her devastating treatment in Lucy Mirando’s pork laboratory, none of the white ALF members can bear to watch her be violently inseminated by a gargantuan, disfigured boar. The single non-white member of the brigade, however, keeps his eyes fixated on his computer monitor, patrolling the recorded scene like so many East and South Asian “content moderators,” who troll and clean the abject id of the internet.

In the context of Mirando’s lab, where mutant pigs appear as freak show spectacles, we don’t feel Okja’s own monstrosity. She seems more out of place among other GMOs than she did among her human companions. The scene confirms Okja’s transformation from Super Pig to Super Pet, but this transformation is no less instrumental to human needs than that of pig to pork. Despite Bong Joon-ho’s representation of human agents as grotesque, naïve, or marginal, Okja’s narrative reinforces a world order in which animals, machines, and animal-machines matter because they’re made by humans for humans. They even look, act, and feel like us.

Anthropomorphizing Okja is a collective labor, one in which the viewer—devastated by the pig’s plight—takes part. In this way, Okja’s position at the nexus of capitalist and posthumanist anxiety assumes the resonance of a 21st century Frankenstein. But where the parts that make up Dr. Frankenstein’s monster have been taken from the masses—ripped from mass graves and cobbled together in the scientist’s laboratory—Okja’s parts proliferate in the masses, in the mass-produced meat product that contains traces of her genes. Where Frankenstein’s monster is animated from dead bodies, Okja’s meat is made to animate living ones.

If Shelley’s monster concentrated an anxiety about the collective at the close of the 18th century, Bong Joon-ho’s monstrous pig focalizes a slightly different anxiety for contemporary viewers: not about the collective per se, but about collective labor. After all, collective labor is the machine that makes Okja run. It lays dormant in her computer-generated flesh, engineered by a team of graphics designers. It resides in the computer algorithms that recommend Okja to subscribers (“Because you watched Twin Peaks …”) and in the crowdsourced content provider that is Netflix Studios. We manifest it when we feel Okja's CGI-pain. When we boo Netflix’s global capitalism but cheer Okja’s anti-globalist message, we miss the ways in which the film’s politics of production and its ethics of representation align: in a pathetic appeal to mass emotion to keep up the mass work.