Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seo-Hyeon
Watch Okja online in the UK: Netflix UK
We’re gonna need a bigger Babe. Teaming up with writer and journalist Jon Ronson, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2017) comes on like Disney’s Pete’s Dragon (1977) crossed with abattoir horror short Blood of the Beasts (1949), or Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation (2006). It might have a cute creature at the centre of the action – a genetically engineered ‘super pig’, named Okja – but this is not really a traditional kids’ movie in the key of the House of Mouse. Instead, it uses corporate satire and scenes of animal slaughter to ram home the point not only that meat is murder but that our consumption of bacon, sausages, hams and trotters – which Tilda Swinton’s CEO, Lucy Mirando, points out “the Mexicans love, go figure” – is doing untold damage to the environment. Okja is essentially a zanily-imagined plea to vegetarianism and a message movie in an age where message movies are largely out of fashion.
Okja is the golden pig in Mirando’s scheme to rebrand her agrochemical company. Her father was a psychopath businessman and her sister, Nancy (also Swinton), too much of a chip off the old block. Nancy’s reign at the top of the ladder ended when she was found to be dumping toxic waste in a lake. The lake literally exploded. Lucy, while attempting to present a new vision of responsible capitalism and environmental awareness, is really just hiding the truth from the public. It’s this cynicism – as well as our complicit role in meat consumption – that makes Bong Joon-ho’s film work a broad comedy and a timely warning that we must confront the terrible reality of where our food comes from.
Okja is raised by munchkin farm girl Mija (Seo-Hyeon) in rural South Korea. The pair are inseparable best friends, living an idyllic existence of foraging, bathing and eating. One day, Jake Gyllenhaal’s American scientist and TV personality comes to take Okja away to America, where the sad truth about her origins and immediate future become clear. Mija cannot bear to lose her homeslice and takes off in pursuit, both aided and hindered by ALF (Animal Liberation Front) leader Jay (Paul Dano) and his clan of eco-warriors, who have their own agenda.
Okja is an absolute cutie, for sure, and her journey is superbly – and at times bleakly – orchestrated by the director. The human, non-CG actors play their roles as either grotesque caricatures or deadpan comedic. While Gyllenhaal’s gurning and goofing around is definitely a weak leak, he’s thankfully in a supporting role and only really in a handful of scenes. Swinton, reuniting with Bong Joon-ho after the little-seen Snowpierecer (2013), is typically excellent and hilarious as a deceptively good-natured but rather dim businesswoman, who thinks she’s blazing a trail, but is, in fact, sailing close to the shores of financial ruin. The true stars of the show, however, are the beautifully rendered Okja and Seo-Hyeon’s plucky heroine. The film belongs to them.
With poppy visuals, a very smart script from Ronson and Bong Joon-ho, Okja is a delightful adventure with a confrontational message we cannot ignore. Uncle Walt would never make a film like this.
Okja is available in UK cinemas and on Netflix, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.
This review was originally published at Cannes 2017. For more on the festival, from acquisitions and Netflix news to reviews of Amazon Studios’ latest, check our dedicated Cannes channel.