Of all the phrases that have been accumulated over the history of language, none have remained quite as relevant as ‘you are what you eat’. A poignant statement to say the least; one that has not only remained in the cultural zeitgeist, but has equally evolved to suit our modernity. Though, I have yet to find a better embodiment of the age-old phrase than in the 2017 film, helmed by the compelling Bong Joon-ho, Okja.
The film in question offers a fable on the warring factions of activism against corporate commercialisation, the force-fed rules of modern consumption and the radical attempts to liberate the innocent. Though, at the centre of Okja, resides a human tale of friendship and loyalty between compassionate, savvy child, Mija, and her “pet” super pig, Okja. Yet, how does the film ultimately tie back to my original thought patterns on ‘you are what you eat’ theory? The answer is actually simple.
A tutor of mine once told me that to make sense of the fantasy storytelling we consume, we must first remove all its fantasy elements. Once all the make-believe is gone, only then are we able to see the story for what it is truly trying to say to us. So, I guess my real question for you is, when you take Okja out of Okja, what exactly is left? A gritty reboot of Babe? Yeah, kind of, but I guess, more specifically, what is left in Okja are themes stemming from consumption of animals under a numbing capitalist banner. Front and centre of the film is our society’s abuse of the environment and our care-free assault on nature for a whiff of corporate success.
Director of the project, Bong, is a man whose filmography precedes him in terms of sticking it to “The Man”. From the deconstruction of class systems in Snowpiercer to the juxtaposition of wealth between modern families in Parasite, Bong’s work continues to lead back to commentating on the capitalist machine. It stands to reason why Okja adheres to similar themes as Bong’s previous work, but from a completely new perspective. Whereas Snowpiercer lightly brushes on viewpoints of climate, Okja battles the capitalist beast with the full force of environmentalism, staging scenarios ripe to comment on the unethical treatment of animals. Although, what Okja does to argue its point is not to force feed the philosophies of veganism, but rather take an enlightened stance on consumerism. Instead of villainising the concept of meat eating, the film alternatively turns fault to the source of meat production; shining a light on how a once common human practise has become tainted by capitalist ideals.
Never does Okja really portray carnivorous practises as outdated or savage. Rather, the film understands meat eating as a natural way of life for humans. Take one of the film’s earliest sequences which sees Mija, the young protagonist living off the land with Okja, fishing and later eating her catch. Here, Okja portrays the classic Circle of Life; people engrained in nature, living with the land and taking from it as much as they give. Rather than this action of carnivory being frowned upon by this environmentally concerned film, it is instead basically considered unimportant in the larger narrative form. And although this scene may mean nothing to the plot, it means everything to the theme as the scene basically okays the act of carnivory. However, it is here Okja manages to draw an ethical line; there is a difference between meat eating and meat consumption. A rather big difference.
As the film progresses and Mija is thrusted into the concrete American jungle; naturalism fades, trees become plastic, people become devious and meat is tainted. The carnivory no longer becomes a way of life, but a way of business. The commercialisation, breeding, torture, death and eventual consumption of animals is normalised because capitalism says so. No longer is eating meat a by-product of living off the land and entertaining the Circle of Life, but rather another swipe at gaining success amidst a landscape of capitalism.
Here we find consumption to have two meanings: the physical consumption of meat and the metaphysical consumption of unhealthy philosophies. Capitalism does what capitalism does best; it takes a natural human practise, unethically rewires it and resells it to us as a piece of consumerism. Capitalism attempts to stamp out any non-westernised culture’s attempts at living simultaneously with nature, like Mija’s, to instead sell the idea that we own nature. And capitalism is perfectly embodied in the fictional company of the Mirando Corporation that sells people a white lie to continue this cycle of consumption.
In the film, the villainous Mirando Corporation (spoiler alert) genetically creates mutated super pigs, promotes them as a miracle source of meat and proceeds to sell them within the fib. And despite the horrific acts of the company over the course of the film, the powerful Okja still attempts to humanise them as victims of capitalism in their own right. Lucy Mirando, the CEO and synecdoche of the Mirando Corporation, is established as only enacting these devious plans in an attempt to gain genuine success. Although, capitalism will have people like Lucy believe that true success is a product of gaining appreciation from a company and consumers; appreciation from those who do not really matter. Alternatively, though, the environmentalism approach, represented by Mija, observes success as a by-product of naturalism which is basically genuine and traditional human intimacy and connectedness. Mija saves Okja by the end of the film because there is still hope for this outlook; there is still hope for humans to find success beyond preconceived capitalist goals.
A quick Google search will tell you Okja means “Finest Friend” and basically, yeah, success outside of capitalism is finding these natural connections; finding these friendships in a damaged world.So, continue blindly consuming the mutated, fake plastic products capitalism desperately suggests we purchase… but, you are what you eat. The people in Okja consumed mutated, capitalism built super pigs, so what does that tell you? Who is the real super pig in this scenario? Although, there is an alternative that everyone can adopt: eat what is ethically accessible to you.
Eat as we humans were intended to, as part of the Circle of Life. Eat like you belong to the world and not like the world belongs to you. But most importantly, eat the rich. Eat the system that made us this way. Eat it all. Only then can we rejoin the Circle of Life. Eat the rich, because you are what you eat. And true richness – true success – is an endless friendship with those around you and the natural world that holds you.
Written by Nahum Gale