In the 2017 science fiction fantasy film Okja, a young Korean girl named Mija forms a close bond with a genetically modified (GM) Super Pig, Okja. The two live together in the rural mountains of South Korea, where they are raised by Mija’s grandfather. However, their idyllic life is shattered when the Mirando Corporation, a powerful biotech company, comes to take Okja away. It is revealed that Okja, alongside other twenty-five Super Pigs around the world, are experiments of the company. With love and friendship, Mija embarks on a journey to rescue Okja, and along the way she is joined by a group of animal rights activists, Animal Liberation Federation (ALF). Together, they fight against the Mirando Corporation and save Okja from the slaughterhouse.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Okja invites its audience to question the ethics of killing animals and non-human creatures. At first, the plot seems to entangle with Mija’s quest to rescue Okja, but as the story unfolds, it raises ethical questions such as whether humans have the right to kill other species at their own discretion and whether non-human lives are considered inferior to human lives. These questions parallel the themes explored in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead (2018), which urges the audience to repackage and re-examine their preconceived notions and compassion toward animals. In Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead, Tokarczuk also challenges readers to consider the ethical implication of treating animals as commodities and to recognize the interconnection between humans and the natural world (Haraway, 2016). Ultimately, it contested the idea of human exceptionalism and anthropocentric narrative in which humans created. It also deals with the issue of justice and responsibility, as Janina Duszejko, the main character, attempts to seek justice for the murder of animals in her community.
Towards the end of the book, it is revealed that Janina was responsible for the deaths of several characters (except Big Foot, as he choked to death). Her motive for committing these crimes was due to the murder of her beloved dogs, whom she regarded as her “daughters”, by hunters. Janina was asked by the police officers what she knew about these cases, and they would be confused by her claims that it was animals’ revenge. It is arguably unclear whether Janina killed them and used animals as a scapegoat for her crimes, or she just wanted revenge for her “daughters”. In this way, it can be said that Janina was hijacking animal voices to justify her crime, which subsequently forced those animals into the position of subaltern (Spivak, 1994). Despite advocating for animal rights, Janina, ultimately, used animals for her own benefit, inadvertently perpetuating the notion of human exceptionalism.
Additionally, It should be noted that although animal rights are a recurring theme in the book, humans and ‘humanness’ still predominate the narrative. While Tokarczuk may have intended to provoke readers to consider animal rights, the story is still told from an anthropocentric perspective and narrative where all the events revolved around a female human and prioritize human needs (Janina’s urge to revenge) while animals and nature became objects of spectacle. This is evident in how Tokarczuk describes the nature of the Polish border landscape in highly intricate detail. In this way, the book might be perceived as ironic, as animals are still being exploited by humans in order to shed light on animal issues. This proves anthropocentrism’s core that while humans are so equipped with power, such as Janina’s power to be an unreliable narrator in her own narrative and power to decide which animals are to ‘blame’ for each death, animals have no power and voices at all. It confirms that escaping from anthropocentric narrative is rather not possible.
Meanwhile, Bong depicts Okja as a sentient and intelligent creature who is clearly capable of feeling pain and suffering. Nevertheless, the theme of unethical animal agriculture seems to fall short as the film mainly focuses on a relationship between its protagonist: Okja and Mija. Towards the end of the film, Mija rescued Okja by making a deal with Nancy Mirando (Lucy’s twin sister), exchanging golden pig sculptures for Okja’s life. Despite a happy ending, no other pigs in the slaughterhouse are rescued. They moaned for help to be liberated from human imprisonment and waited to be massacred, as if a poignant resonance of the Holocaust. Only one piglet seemed to have a chance of escaping, while the rest were left behind, doomed to be commodified and packaged in plastic boxes. This means that the cruelty of Mirando Corporation will continue on and more GM Super Pigs will be forced breeding, probably, endlessly.
Lucy Mirando, the CEO of Mirando Corporation, promoted that the Super Pigs will be revolutionary for the livestock industry as they emit a low toxic footprint, consume less food, and produce less excretion. However, these claims are just a marketing ploy made to convince consumers to purchase Super Pigs’ meats. Mija’s grandfather also agreed with the company’s idea, as he mentioned that “This is Okja’s fate”. This illustrates that Mija’s grandfather also perpetuated the idea of human exceptionalism and saw animals as inferior and not rational enough to think for themselves, rendering them as the Other. Although this perspective may not be unexpected from him, it nonetheless contributes to the epistemic violence against animals. Similar to Janina who unintentionally used animals as protection from police investigation, he also indirectly exploits animals by not acknowledging their intelligence and ability to think, which in turn furthers the marginalization of animals. In Okja, Super Pigs become voiceless victims of anthropocentrism and capitalism as they are reduced to and objectified as mere commodities and suppressed in order to serve human needs, profits, and consumption.
Mija herself also being exploited and Othering by White people, as she was nonconsensually coerced to be a brand image and a tool of capitalist like Mirando Corporation. This is exemplified by Lucy’s claim that Mija would be the perfect embodiment of Mirando Corporation’s ideals, possessing qualities such as youthfulness, femininity, and global appeal, thereby rendering her a valuable asset. The film thus illustrates the extent to which individuals from marginalized communities are vulnerable to being subjugated and commodified for the benefit of those in positions of power. Furthermore, Mija’s deal with Nancy seems to be performative in a way, as it reminds the audience that there is no way individuals can challenge a powerful capitalist entity except by agreeing to follow their tradition.
In the film, there is a clear distinction made between nature and humans, depicted by contrasting the rural mountain setting where Okja, Mija, and her grandfather live, with the urban city of Seoul. Nature is portrayed in a romanticized manner, with cinematography enhancing its aesthetic appeal, while the city is shown as busy and crowded, emphasizing the divide between humans and non-human entities. Mija’s successful rescue of Okja, with the help of ALF, is depicted in a fairy-tale-like fashion in the film. However, it is important to examine the position of ALF as an animal rights organization. In one scene, when Okja unconsciously attacks Mija, Jay, the leader of ALF, intervenes by throwing a microphone stand at Okja to protect Mija. This exemplifies how humans hold the power to make decisions and prioritize their own species over non-human creatures, as if the mission to rescue Okja disappeared instantly. Also, framing the rescue of Okja as a mission could also be problematic, as it may reify a savior complex of human helping animals. Although the ALF aimed to save Okja and other Super Pigs, their efforts are still depicted as a quest to be achieved.
In summary, Okja and Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead offer a thought-provoking perspective that challenges the anthropocentric narrative, calling for a more empathetic approach towards non-human entities and a deeper understanding of interspecies relationships. Both works critically examine the manner in which humans position themselves as superior to animals and nature, neglecting the fact that they are integral components of nature. However, both are limited in their ability to transcend the anthropocentric narrative, as they appropriate the voices of animals and nature for their own narrative purposes. This highlights the inherent difficulty of comprehending non-humans from an anthropocentric perspective and underscores the need for alternative approaches to understanding and interacting with non-human beings.
Bong , J. (Director). (2017). Okja [Fiilm]. Netflix.
Haraway, D. (2016, September). Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene. E-Flux. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/75/67125/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/
Spivak, G. C. (1994). Can the Subaltern Speak ? In P. Williams & L. Chrisman (Eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. Routledge. https://abahlali.org/files/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf
Tokarczuk, O. (2019). Drive your plow over the bones of the dead (A. Lloyd-Jones, Trans.). Riverhead Books.