Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is the story of Mija and her friendship with the eponymous mutant super pig born in a laboratory. Okja, unbeknownst to Mija, was conceived as a cheaper and tastier alternative to other forms of meat in the market, not as a pet. Okja is taken away from Mija, tortured in captivity, and sent to the slaughterhouse in the climax along with thousands of her kind. The film has reportedly scarred enough meat eaters to go vegan all over the world. While researching for the film, Bong himself temporarily turned vegan. Okja is only the latest in a long line of films that has assaulted the audience’s appetite at a psychological level.

In the animated film Chicken Run (2000), a group of chickens survive slaughter for an industrialised pot pie initiative. The chickens are intelligent and are thoroughly distressed on seeing their kind get killed for food. The chickens share the daredevil spirit of Mija and the Animal Liberation Front, the vigilante animal rights group in Okja, as they fight their human owners repeatedly and ultimately escape to an island for a happily ever after.

Chicken Run. Image credit: Dreamworks.
Chicken Run. Image credit: Dreamworks.

The livestock in Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation (2006), however, aren’t that lucky. In this case, it is not the plight of the cattle, but the fact that fecal matter may be present in hamburgers because of corporate apathy is what is disconcerting. That industrial meat production processes are cheap but cruel to animals and unhealthy for humans is explored in detail in the Oscar nominated documentary Food, Inc (2008).

The theme of corporations meddling with food for their greed is dealt with in the most harrowing way in the science fiction film Soylent Green (1973). As the world suffers from a food crisis, most humans in the year 2022 survive on a green wafer called Soylent Green produced by the all-powerful Soylent Corporation. An investigation into the murder of a high-ranking Soylent executive reveals that Soylent Green is not made from high energy plankton as advertised but from human remains.

Humans are also sliced and diced by the butcher and landlord Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) in Delicatessen (1991) to feed his tenants in a futuristic France reeling from food shortage. Unlike Soylent Green, the people feeding on human meat in Delicatessen are aware of what they eat.

The villain gets a taste of his own medicine in Peter Greenaway’s sumptuous The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) when he is forced to eat a roasted corpse on gunpoint. When gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) tortures and kills his wife Georgina’s lover Michael (Alan Howard), Georgina (Helen Mirren) gets the cook Boarst (Richard Bohringer) to roast Michael’s corpse and serve it to Albert. As Albert gulps down Michael, Georgina shoots him dead before saying, “Cannibal”. The credits roll.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

Steven Spielberg contributes his own morsel towards culinary horror in the grotesque and racist banquet scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). The lavish dinner spread includes a big, fat snake whose belly is sliced open to reveal squirming eels. It is followed by beetles that are eaten like pakoras, red-coloured soup with eyeballs floating in it, and, for dessert, “chilled monkey brains”.

South Korean maverick Park Chan-wook brought back memories of the Indiana Jones scene in his revenge thriller Oldboy (2003) in which Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) eats a live octopus in a restaurant. Four octopuses were used to shoot the scene, and Choi Min-sik, a Buddhist, said a prayer before devouring each one.

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Oldboy.

Even the most benign food items, such as milk and custard, can also become the stuff of terrors in the most demented scenarios. In Takashi Miike’s surreal horror film Gozu (2003), a woman bottles her breast milk and sells it to customers. Equally bizarre is the custard scene in Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson’s gory Braindead (1992). After a Sumatran rat monkey (the result of a monkey raped by a plague-carrying rat) bites the elderly Vera (Elizabeth Moody), her body begins to develop ugly septic wounds. In one scene, Vera’s wound squirts infected blood and pus into a bowl of custard. The guest unknowingly eats the spoiled portion and delivers his verdict with a smile: “Creamy.”

Even chocolate has not been spared in Kevin Smith’s cult comedy Mallrats (1995) and Danny DeVito’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel of the same name, Matilda (1996). In Mallrats, the hero Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee) teaches his friend the “stink palm”, which involves rubbing one’s hand against one’s posterior until it stinks. In one scene, Brodie hands Jared (Michael Rooker) a chocolate pretzel with his stink palm.

In Matilda, when the gluttonous school kid Bruce Bogtrotter (Jimmy Karz) steals a slice of chocolate cake from the dictatorial principal Miss Trunchbull’s platter, he is made to eat a gigantic chocolate cake big enough to feed the entire school. Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) points at the cook and says that “her blood and sweat went into this cake” as the cook walks away scratching her rump. It is a scene that will put anyone off chocolate for life.

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Matilda.