Directed by Bong Joon Ho.
Starring: Seo-Hyun Ahn, Hee-Bong Byun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Lily Collins.
A Korean teenager reluctantly joins forces with a group of eco-warriors in a bid to save her beloved super-pig – a genetically modified animal originally created for the slaughterhouse by a sinister corporation.
Netflix’s first foray into the Cannes film festival has elicited cheers and jeers in equal measure. Shortly after it was announced that two of the streaming service’s productions would be competing for the Palme d’Or (Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories being the second), the festival organisers then said future entries would only qualify if there was a theatrical release in France planned.
And the backlash continued with the press preview of Okja at the Grand Theatre Lumiere. Loud boos erupted when Netflix’s logo appeared at the start, prompting a battle of noises between international journalists. The audience became increasingly vocal as it appeared the movie was being shown in the wrong aspect ratio as well. That error forced the festival team to pause for a moment before recommencing the screening. Fortunately for Netflix (and Brad Pitt’s Plan B), Okja’s inauspicious beginning didn’t detract from the feature itself, which is an excellent, quirky drama about animal cruelty.
A bleached blonde, white suited Tilda Swinton kicks off Okja on a punchy note. She plays Lucy Mirando, the CEO of an agro-chemical multinational bearing her family name. Lucy is the perky new boss trying to bring some Fairtrade-style prestige to her company. Armed with a set of colourful infographics, she tells the media and investors that Mirando Corporation has bred more than a dozen special piglets to be raised by farmers around the world. She promises that in 10 years time, these pigs will be supersized – carrying enough flesh to produce an abundance of delicious pork – and be less damaging to the environment. There will also be a contest for the best piggy to be judged by a goofy wildlife scientist, Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Fast forward to the present – 2017 – where a 13-year-old girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) is frolicking in the South Korean countryside with Okja, one of Mirando Corp’s piglets which now resembles a hippopotamus. It’s obvious the creature and human share a close bond – they cuddle, go on adventures in the forest and live together on Mija’s grandfather’s small farm.
However, unbeknownst to Mija, her dear Okja is ripe for the factory line. Mirando’s local manager soon pays a visit with Dr Johnny and his TV crew. The flamboyant doc declares Okja a perfect specimen and arrangements are made for the giant pig to be transported to New York City immediately. Naturally Mija is devastated and the plucky teen decides to run off to Seoul to free her captive pet. But her rescue mission coincides with a stunt by a group of hippy eco-warriors, led by Paul Dano, called the Animal Liberation Front. The ALF reveal the evil motives behind Mirando Corp’s marketing campaign and co-opt a hesitant Mija into their crusade.
Thanks to Bong’s vision and skills, Okja is a spirited, moving and thrilling film. He confidently guides all the elements – including an international cast, a huge CGI pig and several action sequences – to deliver something compelling and refreshingly unique. The tone shifts back and forth between satire, sadness and humour, but it’s seamless and never feels jarring.
Of course, at the heart of Okja is a political message about how we turn a blind eye to the source of the meat on our plates. Though Okja the pig is grotesquely large, she is an intelligent and sensitive mammal deserving of affection and kindness. Bong asks for compassion and greater awareness – and may even convince a few viewers to seriously consider vegetarianism.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★