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Commentary Culture

My favorite joke about food goes like this: A guy is walking in the country one day, when he sees a three-legged pig in a farmyard. He calls out to the farmer, “How come your pig’s only got three legs?” The farmer launches into a long and complicated tale about the pig’s virtues and accomplishments—the time he rescued one of the kids from drowning, the time he pulled Grandma out of a burning building at the risk of his own life, the time he saw the baby crawling into the path of a runaway truck and snatched her back to safety, the time . . .

This story contains spoilers for the movie Okja.

“Yeah, yeah,” says the guy. “Great pig. But what about the leg?”

The farmer looks at him. “Mister,” he says, “a pig like that—a loyal, loving, heroic pig like that. Well, sir,” he says, choking up a bit, “you don’t eat a pig like that all at once.”

Ba-dump.

Like many of the best jokes (and a lot of great tragedies, for that matter), the three-legged pig story is about the compromises we have to make between what we would do if we followed our hearts and what we actually do because, well, it’s what we actually do. That conflict is home territory for the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, who has just released what may be the year’s best movie about eating and its moral conundrums.

Bong is not the world’s most optimistic guy. His first U.S. release, Snowpiercer, for example, is about class war on a train that carries all the human survivors of a planet-killing man-made ice age. Everyone, it turns out, is being manipulated. No one wins. And then the train crashes. (Trust me. That’s not as much of a spoiler as you’d think.) In his latest, Okja, available now on Netflix and in what appears to be a very limited theatrical run, he brings that same sensibility, though more in comic mode than tragic, to the question of how we’re to feed ourselves, and how we should think about the animals who end up on our plates. It’s thoughtful, provocative, and very, very funny.

“When someone is experiencing the beauty of a film, that itself is changing the world in some aspect.”

It’s the near future, the world needs food, and the Mirando Corporation, one of the worst, greediest, most destructive businesses on the planet, has decided to respond to the challenge and transform itself into a corporate good guy by creating a new breed of superpigs—huge, delicious, cute as the dickens, environmentally friendly, and completely natural—no genetic engineering, just old-fashioned animal husbandry. The new CEO, played by Tilda Swinton with a psychotic gleam in her eye, introduces a baby porker to the press and announces a competition: The first batch of superpigs are being transported to loving family farms throughout the world, to be raised using traditional local techniques. In ten years, the biggest, most beautiful of the brood will become the progenitor of a new breed of planet-saving pigs.

Much of this is a lie. But you knew that already, right?

Flash forward ten years. In the mountains of Korea, we meet one of the superpigs, Okja, a kind of frolicsome hippopotamus with the face of a puppy. The adorable beast is cared for by the equally adorable Mija, an orphan girl who lives with her grandfather in a remote shack. If you’re thinking Heidi, but with a hippo-puppy instead of goats, you’ve got the idea. Mija and Okja are inseparable. They wander the hillsides together. They nap together. When Mija wants fish for dinner, Okja cannonballs into the river and sends them flying onto the shore. When Mija falls off the cliff . . . Well, you get it.

Netflix

Into this idyll comes the evil corporation, demanding its property.

I don’t want to spoil all the fun for you. Suffice it to say that there’s a long, mostly comical battle for possession of a very large pig, waged by the evil corporation, a pack of mostly comical animal activists led by Paul Dano, and a cute little girl. It turns out that Okja and her kind have actually been genetically engineered in secret laboratories to be huge, cute, and tasty. The contest is an empty PR ploy. The activists are so devoted to principle that they’re almost wholly ineffective—except that they’re willing to sell out Mija and Okja so they can use the pig to smuggle a hidden camera into the lab where Mirando plans to experiment on her. Everything is image, everything is PR. Everything except one girl and one pig.

When it’s all over, Okja and Mija are back home, and basically nothing else has changed for the good. Giant pigs are pouring through the Mirando slaughterhouse, Tilda Swinton’s CEO character, who was dangerous because she believed her own lies, has been replaced by her twin sister, who is even more dangerous because she doesn’t. One friendship between a human and an animal has been honored. The broader relationship between people and animals simply goes away.

Sound familiar?

“I think that films aren’t necessarily tools to change the world,” Bong told the Guardian. “A film is just a beautiful thing in itself. However, when someone is experiencing the beauty of a film, that itself is changing the world in some aspect.”

Bong himself became a vegan while working on the film. It didn’t stick. I heard him on NPR the other day confessing that he was eating meat again.

Just saying. In a world like this, with the things we do to ourselves and to everybody and everything else—well, you don’t change that all at once.

Patrick Clinton

Patrick Clinton is a long-time journalist and educator. He edited the Chicago Reader during the politically exciting years that surrounded the election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington; University Business during the early days of for-profit universities and online instruction; and Pharmaceutical Executive during a period that saw the Vioxx scandal and the ascendancy of biotech. He has written and worked as a staff editor for a variety of publications, including Chicago, Men’s Journal, and Outside (for which he ran down the answer to everyone’s most burning question about porcupines). For seven years, he taught magazine writing and editing at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.