Bong Joon-ho did it again. In Cannes 2017, this Netflix production had a standing ovation after experiencing some technical difficulties. It also generated a discussion about whether or not digital distribution (thus not theatrical) could be in the film festival competition. This resulted in a new rule that will be implemented in the next edition of Cannes: only theatrical distribution in France would be eligible for competition.
Bong Joon-ho is known for great works such as Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Mother (2009), and Snowpiercer (2013). His films are characterised by black humour and social commentary. Okja is no exception. In a world with an increasing population, a damaged environment and an increase in the shortage of food, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) of the Mirando Multinational Corporation comes with a solution: create a super piglet – which actually looks like a mix of a cute hippo-pig-elephant. In order to create la crème de la crème of meat, these piglets are sent to 26 farmers around the world and after 10 years the best piglet is chosen. Fast forward, and the young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has spent almost all her life with Okja, her super piglet, in the farm of her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong). However, Okja is taken away by the Mirando Corporation. The young Mija is a strong character who is willing to do everything she can to get Okja back. In her attempt to rescue Okja, Mija encounters the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) who is willing to help her bring Okja safely back to her farm in the mountains of South Korea.
Lucy Mirando reminds us of Tilda Swinton’s character in Snowpiercer – it’s all about the teeth. She is the capitalist villain of the story, but also a comical character. Lucy Mirando is not the only comical character, as most of the ‘bad guys’ seem to be created to be funny in a scary way. Lucy Mirando’s sweet and cheery enthusiasm, and her good intentions to improve and help the planet turn out to be hidden beneath her refined light coloured wardrobe, which are often colours associated with ‘good’. Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a zoologist, TV personality, and the face of Mirando’s “best super piglet” campaign. From the start he shows a fishy behaviour – thirsty for views and fame. He wears Hawaiian shirts with khaki shorts, and his way of walking and especially the crack of his voice, make him quite a character – flamboyant on the outside but dark on the inside.
On the other side of the story we have the good guys. They are smart, conscious about the environment and animal rights. They fight for what they believe is right. Paul Dano as the leader of ALF is a fantastic choice with his calm voice and acting, which is the total opposite of the paranoid and hysterical Lucy Mirando.
Besides the casting choice, Okja the piglet is amazingly done. Her eyes are the powerful weapon that will question your carnivorous appetite. Could be Okja a pet or the best meal you would ever have? Could you eat your pet? What is a pet? And how do we determine what we can eat and what not in terms of animals? Okja’s eyes look human and some of her actions too, which makes the issue of eating meat more difficult, as the character is ‘humanized’.
As always, Bong’s cinematography is breathtaking and his choices for slow-motions are the right ones at the perfect moment, in which the meaning of the scene is intensified. Even the soundtrack is made up of a great selection. The film combines music from pop to tango into a comedy vibe that allows to camouflage the serious and heavy topics of vegetarianism and capitalism.
Okja has an entertaining story with interesting characters and a conscious message. It’s a pity that Bong’s Okja does not have a theatrical release in numerous cinemas around the world, as his works are worth watching on a big screen.
PS: Don’t forget to watch Okja until the very end. There is a scene after the end credits.
Rating: 4 out of 5 piglets.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Runtime: 2 hours
Initial release: 19 May 2017
Image: Okja screenshot trailer – Okja and Mija.