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While at Cannes the Netflix logo that precedes Okja was met with boos, it’s difficult to imagine that this bizarre, absurdist super-pig film would be with us at all without the multi-billion dollar company. It’s a shame that a film of this scale, with this amount of rambunctious energy, will be seen mostly on a small screen, but at least we have the film in the first place – and in the form that its director intended.
That director, acclaimed South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, had an experience with the Weinstein company while making his English language debut Snowpiercer, that was proof enough that Netflix might be the only place where his unapologetically wild stylings would be allowed final cut. The Netflix model is far from perfect, but we should be grateful that we now have this: Okja, a blockbuster-sized adventure that fluctuates between absurdist comedy and Holocaust drama with gleeful abandon and haunting soul.
13 year old Ahn Seo-Hyun is note perfect as Mija, an orphan living in the lonely mountains of South Korea with her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong). Her days pass happily alongside a creature named Okja, a sort of pig-hippo creature with elephantine ears, apparently inspired by a manatee that Bong once saw, whose air of sadness lingered in his mind.
The film’s action takes place in an alternate present, save for a 2001-set prologue featuring Tilda Swinton’s Lucy Mirando performing a well-rehearsed, flashy corporate speech to a bunch of suited business executives. Her cheery appearance, fit with braces and pastels, attempts to convince innocence, although her role in the film as Lucy represents one of capitalisms many faces.
She tells of the super-pigs she has bred and sent to various farms around the world. Okja is one of them and ten years on, having grown up alongside Mija, she is ready to be sent back to New York as the winner of Lucy Mirando’s super-pig competition (essentially a pubic front) before being slaughtered and sold in supermarkets across the country and the planet.
Mija and Okja’s unbreakable bond, as well as the little girl’s youthful resolve, leads her to fearlessly travel into Seoul in order to steal back her best friend from captivity, leading to one of the most kinetic and flat out crazy chase sequences cinema has ever seen. Corporate suits, hired guns, a group of aggressively non-violent animal rights activists, a young girl and her best pig friend all collide in a frenzy of imagination, colour and flying souvenirs.
It’s astounding how many characters Okja manages to cram into its two hours, and even more astounding that each pops with such vibrancy.
Leading that animal rights group – the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) – is Paul Dano’s Jay, a calm and kind animal lover with a hidden ferocity that, when it shows, is somehow both frightening and hilarious.
Along with him comes Red (Lily Collins), Silver (Devon Bostick) and Blond (Daniel Henshall) – all named for their hair – and K (Steven Yeun), who acts as a Korean translator for Mija when the group helps her out and explains their plan to save Okja and her fellow super-pigs from the Mirando Corporation.
I’m almost impressed that I’ve managed to write so much about the film without mentioning its wild card: Jake Gyllenhaal is Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a zoologist / TV personality / drunk / psychopath / general crazy person. His first appearance is extremely alarming, and I spent quite a while trying to figure out whether his acting qualifies as good before I decided that I didn’t care. It’s this year’s Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending, only somehow more over the top. It is a glorious thing to behold.
It’s not that Okja is a perfect film, but like an uncontrolled explosion, it’s advisable to simply gaze at it in awe rather than attempting any kind of critical analysis.
The film never achieves anything in its second half (which moves from Korea to the US) on the energy level of the chase at its centre, but it’s hard to see that as unintentional when noting the tone of the finale, which is less of a final flourish than an exhalation of bated breath.
There are points towards the film’s close when you might feel like you’re watching a Lars Von Trier film, so genuinely harrowing is Mija’s discovery of the process of animal slaughter and meat processing. If you’re on the verge of vegetarianism, watching Okja will make that decision a lot easier. But Bong Joon-ho himself is not a vegetarian, and neither is Mija. He allows you to take from the film what you will – and that’s a whole buffet of choices.
Okja is bursting at the seams with stuff, and it may have collapsed completely if it wasn’t orchestrated by such a master conductor. It was undoubtedly filmed for an explosive night out at the cinema, but wherever you watch Okja, its sense of fun, heart and pure audacity will burst through. It may not be shown in a movie theatre, but I dare you to call this anything less than pure cinema.
Okja will be available on Netflix and in select theatres on 28th June
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