On 26th September 2016, the Asian Film Archive presented South Korean director Hwang Yoon’s An Omnivorous Family’s Dilemma as part of their ongoing Alt Screen: Of Animalia series, which discuss the relationality amongst humans, animals, and our environment. An informative talk by Dr Harvey Neo from the National University of Singapore followed the screening, ending the night on an intellectually-charged note surrounding questions on the ecology of meat production and consumptions, the reasons for people to switch to vegetarianism, and the role of organisations and law makers in the sustainability of meat production and consumption.
This write-up is the result of the effervescent afterthoughts and unanswered questions that surfaced during my experience of the screening and the public engagement that followed.
Between 2010 and 2011, a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak across South Korea led to the slaughtering of thousands of pigs, along with other hooved farm animals. Set against the backdrop of this national epidemic, An Omnivorous Family’s Dilemma (2015) traces director Hwang Yoon’s journey towards learning more about the life and plight of pigs, once limited to the pork cutlet dish she enjoys. Shot in first-person narrative documentary style, the scenes alternate between having Hwang Soon behind the camera and moments where she is screened going about her daily activities; her voice-over narratives pepper and punctuate the visual images constantly throughout the film. In the beginning of the film, Hwang Yoon expresses her concerns through voice-over contemplations on how clueless she is about the meat production processes. She wonders if she might find out how meat is produced for consumption, and how the outbreak has compelled her to pick up the camera for the first time since she became a mother. Early sequences depict Hwang Yoon’s initial efforts to gain footages and materials to satisfy her curiosity about meat production practices in South Korea. Over the course of a year, Hwang Yoon makes countless futile phone calls to industrial pig factories, all of which rejected her request to film their processes.
Hwan Yoon’s persistence is eventually rewarded by visits to two pig farms of contrasting rearing methods: an industrial pig factory and a free-range pig farm up in the mountains near Seoul. Her visit to the industrial pig factory reveals little information on the laws governing the basic sanitation and health safety on the pig pens, but merely implies that the factory is run based on corporate decisions driven by numbers, quick turnover rates, and the most cost-effective methods of meat production. Cramped and claustrophobic shots of the industrial pig factory amplify the appalling and unsanitary conditions of these pig-rearing practices. Large number of pigs are forced into cell-like spaces that restrict movements to the minimum, where their squeals permeate the dark scenes of the factory visit.
The question that looms from these unsettling scenes is one pertaining to the concerns of their function as food produce: are the pigs “safe” for human consumption? Instead of coming from the perspective of an animal rights activist, it becomes evident that Hwang Yoon’s motivations for tracking down these rearing processes stem from a much more personal and self-involved place: a deep-seated fear that the meat products her family consumes may not be as “safe” for consumption as she had previously presumed. This is most clearly expressed when she worries about the strange rashes on her body after visiting the factory, and how she might possibly spread them to her young son. The other glaring concern of the hostile environment and conditions that the pigs are reared in is not fully addressed.
Quietly surfacing alongside the subject matter of meat production and consumption lies the film’s engagement with the questions of ethics surrounding documentary filmmaking: what are the intentions of the documentary film, what responsibilities accompany the adoption of this particular filmic genre, and more importantly, how do stylistic and aesthetic choices affect the effectiveness of the film as documentary. Particularly, the form and treatment of the subject matter turn the film inward to consider how first-person narrative and voice-over stylistics might be too imposing and consequently too myopic for a conversation pertaining to the processes of meat production and consumption.
In contrast, her visit to the free-range pig farm in the mountains depict spacious pens for the pigs to roam, where the farm owner spends significant time with each individual pig, and seems to have forged relationships with the individual pigs on the farm. Despite a sense of optimism expressed through the sequences where the pigs are seen to be given more freedom to roam, the eventual fate of the pigs remains the same: to the slaughterhouse where they are produced into food. Hwang Yoon’s words emphasise her disillusionment as she exclaims that the owner is no longer the kind farmer she knew from before, almost forgetting that she is after all, still at a pig-rearing produce farm. Her reaction reveals how at the crux of her decision to be vegetarian lies a humanist projection onto the lives of animals. Furthermore, her mode of documentation arguably enacts a certain violence over the images of free-range pig farms insofar as they are never allowed to speak for themselves. Little space is given to the images to express meanings beyond the director’s interjections, interpretations, and reflections.
Through her anthropomorphic narratives of the pigs living in the free-ranged farms, it is evident that she grows attached to the pigs on the farm by drawing parallels between the piglet and her son, attributing individual pigs with characteristics and idiosyncratic behaviours. This is not to say that pigs do not feel or suffer as humans do; they could; but to focus only on this hypothesis misses a larger point. By comparing how they could feel and act like humans, it side-lines the discussion on the ecology of food production and consumption, instead anchoring the debate around what humans dictate or decide as “best”. Hwang Yoon’s interactions with the pigs reveal that her reasons for not eating meat are not solely because the production methods are unsanitary and unhygienic, but also because she realised that pigs are like humans in many ways. Whichever the reasons for vegetarianism, the emphasis on her decision still accentuates the fact that humans are at the top of the food chain, with the autonomy and luxury of choice.
Paradoxically, it is through the perspective of Hwang Yoon and her choice of documentary presentation—however limiting, humanist, and self-contained—that we may begin to consider the real questions surrounding the ethics of meat production and consumption. After an extended time spent with the free-range pigs at the farm, the farmer gifts a box of his meat produce to Hwang Yoon. This moment in the film raises the most ethical juncture in Hwang Yoon’s film. Here, the audience is posed a question: Does the knowledge of how pigs are reared really affect the decision of meat consumers? Are decisions about food choices fundamentally made with the focus on the wellbeing of humans—whether emotionally, or physically?
Quite importantly, An Omnivorous Family’s Dilemma negotiates the various positionalities of Hwang Yoon as documentary filmmaker, mother, wife, and newly-converted vegetarian within a meat-centred culture. Through Hwang Yoon’s documentary film style, the audience is invited to share moments in her life, joining her family during meal times, listening in on conversations amongst family members and friends. Large parts of the film thus presents Hwang Yoon not just as filmmaker, but also as a mother to a young four-year-old boy and a wife to her veterinarian husband; and how her new-found knowledge about pigs and pork directly affects the dietary decisions she makes on behalf on the family: much to the dismay of her husband who expresses his unhappiness about the lack of meat in their daily meals. However, he often appears more annoyed by the camera being pointed in his face, while Hwang Yoon probes incessantly for his opinions on the subject. Similarly, we see Hwang Yoon quite persistently demanding her son eat the vegetarian dishes she prepares, even if he seems less than willing to do so. It is through the film’s form and style that the audience gets a sense of the imposing way Hwang Yoon exacts her decision to cut meat from the household, insofar as her camera work often evokes a tone of intrusiveness and presumptuousness in her address of the subject. The film also exposes the compelling forces within South Korean society that prevent Hwang Yoon’s easy transition to vegetarianism. Met with the lack of food options in public restaurants and cafes, and the fact that much of Korean cuisine involves the use of meat products, her dilemma is rooted in the lack of viable and easy systems of support that make choosing vegetarianism an easy alternative.
Perhaps it is more important to shift the discussion beyond the binaries of right/wrong food habits and it is more crucial to recognise the need for more sustainable, ethical, and responsible food consumption and production methods within the grander scale of the ecological balance and environmental dynamics. In this case, the first step to such an intervention might thus require a similarly more ethical approach to filmmaking documentation that enables the images to speak more freely to the audience, instead of a directive narrative overriding the cinematic images. Doing so might better address and bring forth the different acting influences that constitute the relationalities of food consumption and production. As an audience, the call towards ethical viewership thus propels me to see beyond the images of “suffering pigs” and to contemplate how the choice of food consumption might not be one person’s decision to make. An Omnivorous Family’s Dilemma thus highlights how the quandary is less about why meat should not be eaten or if it is all right to eat meat; nor is it a concern about whether vegetarianism is the right option to make. Instead, it involves a sum of different contributing factors as huge as relating to social and environmental sustainability, and as personal as health concerns or preference.
Jiaying Sim is doctoral candidate in Film and Television Studies at the University of Glasgow, UK. Her research interests lie at the intersection of film-philosophy, cultural and affect theories, as well as transnational cinema studies. Currently, she is completing her dissertation on transnational Chinese films from around Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Hollywood, and how bodies and their affectivity expand readings beyond cultural or national modes of understandings. She has previously written on Hong Kong art films, independent American films, and Scottish art industries.