Renewable Matter # 17 / July-August

The Superpig's Lesson

by Roberto Giovannini

There is no telling whether it will ever reach movie theatres, and that has already wreaked havoc at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where the film – expressly produced to be broadcast in streaming – was officially presented. Okja, the latest work by Bong Joon-ho – a visionary South Korean director – will be available on Netflix that also produced and sponsored it. A fantasy film, poised between a fairy tale and horror, between science fiction and exposure of the excesses of a science enslaved to turbocapitalism that has completely lost track of life and the environment.

The story line revolves around Okja, the name given to a species of genetically-engineered superpig, created in the labs of a company (fictitious, but only up to a point, since it is clearly a parody of the giant Monsanto) called “Mirando.” Mirando/Monsanto created this very special beast because it must contrive its “environmental” virginity after the previous management’s blunders while marketing a killer product able to multiply the company’s profits. The new CEO – a terrible and great Tilda Swinton – states she intends to give humanity a farm animal that uses fewer resources and produces less pollution compared to ordinary cows or pigs.

A really green move, since it is common knowledge that meat-producing animals use huge amounts of water, land, grains and through their waste generate considerable quantities of greenhouse gases. And while they are at it, Mirando’s scientists create an easily-processable superpig, with lots of lean meat, good for every religion and culture and above all tasting very good. In short, what could rightly be defined as greenwashing of planetary proportions.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the storyline is about the meeting between Okja – a superpig – and Mija – a Korean little girl living in the mountains with her farmer grandfather – who is initially entrusted with the care of Okja with whom she built a friendship. But soon, of course, Mirando needs to retrieve its prototype in order to conclude its experimentation by butchering the poor animal. And by revealing from the very beginning the company’s intended fate: ending up in a monstrous slaughterhouse/lager, where the poor animals are tortured, humiliated and then killed to become a pork chop or a steak on consumers’ plates. In some clips, the movie bravely puts all humans in the evil side of the scale: food corporations, environmentalists carried away by their own short-sighted vanity, and even the young Mija.

This is not the first time that Bong Joon-ho tackles confidently and creatively the encounter/clash between humanity and the environment. We all remember the fantastic Snowpiercer, set in a future where, after a disastrous glaciation caused by trying to stop global warming, a tiny fraction of humanity has managed to “survive” and lives on board a train that never stops, governed by a rich elite who takes up the front carriages and exploits the enslaved working class living in the rear carriages. 

This time Bong Joon-ho has tackled another crucial political and ethical knotty problem of our times: is it fair to meet current environmental challenges trying not to change our daily habits while aiming at carrying on living as usual? Can we really talk about sustainability when we merely define it from a technical point of view, without embarking on a profound ethical debate on man’s actions, which are causing simultaneously both a climate catastrophe, mass extinction, resource shortage and (accidently) scientific and industrialized destruction of the animal kingdom? Can we really talk about “sustainable choices” when we are merely opting for cynical and calculated choices?

Big questions that at the moment we are not addressing. Suffice it to think about the paradox emerging from our supporting the so-called “good sustainable fishing practices” to avoid emptying our oceans of fish. As a matter of fact, we are only trying to save some marine species from extinction in order to aptly kill and eat them in a not too distant future. Questions that Okja confronts us with blatantly. Forcing us to think.