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Okja: A genetic super pig and the environment

Okja Image copyright Netflix
Image caption That's some pig! The love between Okja and her human will leave you rooting for a happy ending

Video-streaming giant Netflix has released Okja, a film that could be the world's first ecological action movie. Speaking to the BBC's Heather Chen from Seoul, director Bong Joon-ho talked about environmentalism and nature, and how "selective ignorance" and corporate greed were often related.

Cautionary tales are not new to Bong Joon-ho's audiences, who are familiar with his style of weaving hidden messages into the cinematic narrative.

The famed South Korean filmmaker is celebrated for combining action and horror genres with dark bite.

His 2014 post-apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer inferred much political meaning, displaying the worst of society's imbalances on a high-speed dystopian train.

And there was an environmental message to his 2006 breakout hit The Host, which told the story of a mutated fishy creature that wreaked havoc in the streets of Seoul. The monster was created after radioactive waste was dumped on a US military base.

Image copyright Netflix
Image caption Okja is the newest offering from visionary filmmaker Bong Joon-ho

His latest vision Okja continues that green parable. A bittersweet story about animals and humans, it centres around a lovable super-pig that's touted as an organic, ecologically-sound "revolution in the livestock industry".

"All my films have different stories, some share common themes. But as a storyteller, I want to explore new worlds," Bong said.

With Welsh journalist and screenwriter Jon Ronson (himself a vegetarian), they raise the uncomfortable question: where does one's meat come from?

*Warning: Spoilers below*

The story unfolds with young Mija, a farm girl played by actress An Seo-huyn who lives in the lush mountains of South Korea with her grandfather and their beloved genetically-engineered pig, Okja (an old-fashioned South Korean name without a specific meaning).

The bond between girl and beast is sweet and strong but their peaceful life together sadly doesn't last long.

With the arrival of washed-up celebrity zoologist Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his team, Okja is taken away from her family and thrust back into the hands of her creators, the Mirando meat corporation led by Orwellian nightmare CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) where her unfortunate fate is sealed.

Image copyright Netflix
Image caption CEO Lucy Mirando and her corporate inner circle represent the darker side of the industry

This is no Disney fairytale and the story shifts to Manhattan ("the heart of capitalism," according to Bong) where it takes a darker turn, foraying into the hellish realities of animal laboratories and factory meat farms.

"We create psychological border-lines to avoid discomforts, so we separate our views of animals," Bong said.

"Those we perceive as pets and the ones we place in our shopping carts are the same animals but we choose to separate them."

Image copyright Netflix
Image caption Mija's world changes when she discovers the horrors that await her helpless best friend

But to enjoy the meat, you have to ignore the slaughter. Inspiration for his film's graphic scenes came from a personal visit he made to a commercial slaughterhouse. Depicting this was "absolutely necessary".

"I wanted to crumble these borders and make the audience feel uncomfortable. It is witnessing your family being dragged into a slaughterhouse," he said.

"Compared to my experience of visiting a real-life slaughterhouse, the film scenes were much milder and were expressed in a toned-down manner."

A genetically-modified best friend

Okja's physical appearance gives a nod to the controversial genetically modified foods (GMO) debate. She is special: a one-nipple, hippo-pig hybrid with some manatee resemblance (since they look "incredibly innocent and kind-hearted", Bong says).

"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 said.

Image copyright Netflix
Image caption Okja may be big and cuddly but Bong says his CGI creation 'bears no symbolism' to Studio Ghibli's Totoro

The environment may have been a running theme but sinister notions of capitalism, greed and the global economy also played a role.

"They'll eat it if it's cheap," snaps CEO Lucy Mirando in a telling scene after she's confronted with hesitations about public discomfort surrounding her organisation's meat products.

"It is reasonable to fear the potential disasters and dangers that genetically-modified foods may bring," Bong said.

"There are people who say the danger of GM foods is being overly exaggerated but nobody is able to prove their safety either."

Image copyright Netflix
Image caption Director Bong insists that Okja wasn't made as an anti-meat movie

But Bong insists Okja isn't intended to be a fiery screen statement against eating animals.

"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, adding that he wanted audiences to "witness and understand" how meat was being mass produced.

"We coexist with animals and we should take time to consider their perspective. How we treat them today is a very recent phenomenon and came to be only after we included them in mass production," he said.

"This is the state of capitalism today and this is what I wanted to convey."

Okja is available on Netflix from 28 June and is on limited cinema release.

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