Picture the scene. 8pm Saturday night. You’re watching Animal Hospital with your beloved Tiddles snuggled up on your lap, crying over the fate of a poorly little bunny in Kidderminster, tucking hungrily into your pork scratchings – occasionally deriding dog eating festivals on Facebook – while waiting for the happy-beef joint (reared by a handsome Waitrose-approved Highlands farmer called Angus) to cook in the oven. It’s all a little bit of a moral mess, isn’t it? Joon-ho Bong certainly thinks so, and in this excellent Netflix studios production, he toys with the audience’s morals and emotions like a cat teasing a mouse to its inevitable fate.
Young Mija, played with astonishing skill against greenscreen by Seo-Hyun Ahn, has grown up on an idyllic South Korean farm with her grandfather playing with her gigantic pet super-pig Okja, an animal she is vaguely aware of being part of an experimental competition from meat-company Mirando. As the super-pig competition reaches its ten-year completion date, Mija is distraught to find her beloved companion is to be shipped to New York for the grand unveiling, followed by inevitable slaughter. A mass chase ensues before Okja is kidnapped by a morally jumbled Animal Liberation Front team – headed up by the wonderful Paul Dano – who plan to allow Okja to continue to her fate to get video evidence against the corporation. It is at this point Okja starts to play its hand. The four-way battle of morality for Mija, the ALF members, the corporation and the meat-eating public is both enthralling and unsettling. From the moment Okja appears on screen, the idea that this is a CGI creation is ejected straight from the mind. The effects, headed up by Life of Pi’s Oscar winning Erik De Boer, are staggering, never overstated, just perfectly in-keeping with the story.
The underlying messages are obvious but no less challenging for it. The contrast between the giant corporation’s flashy marketing to the vast slaughterhouses hidden on the edge of town is cutting, ditto the view of the consumer’s selective ignorance of potential moral concerns regarding GM food and humanity’s treatment of animals. Bong lashes layer after layer of satire over the mega-corporation’s obfuscation of ethical eco-friendly consumerism yet it never feels unrealistic, preachy or naive. Although at heart an animal welfare story, Okja is not simply vegan propaganda (Mija’s favourite dish is chicken stew) but a balanced yet brutally awkward attack on personal ethics, orbiting the same justly impudent sun as the Cowspiracy documentary.
Tilda Swinton continues to excel in acting and production roles. She plays Mirando’s CEO Lucy – and her twin sister Nancy – with her trademark resolute eccentricity bordering on insanity, reflecting and building on her frantic oddball roles in The Zero Theorem and Snowpiercer (where she was also directed by Bong). Her preference to smaller budget films, out of the control of major studios, gives her the ability to deal with narratives and characters which fall way outside of the box office norm, her genuine pleasure in the roles shining through with every passing second. Netflix’s business model is not reliant on first week takings so can experiment and reap the results of a slow build. Although derided at Cannes for it’s straight to TV model, Okja – like War Machine, financed partly by Brad Pitt – is a great example of how streaming services providing their own content can only be a good thing. Okja simply would not get made in Hollywood, and that would be a travesty, and Swinton should be applauded for her selection of projects to work with.
It is worth mentioning that Netflix have awarded Okja a G rating, a somewhat arbitrary General Audience certificate, which apparently is the equivalent of a PG. The BBFC have quite rightly rated it 15. This is not a children’s film by any stretch of the imagination. The language and animal welfare imagery on display here – in particular the sobering abattoir scenes in the final third – would not be suitable to even the most psychologically sturdy little sprog.
On the face of it, Okja looks like another in the long line of child and creature friendship movies, yet its bravery, honesty and ruthlessness set it far apart from the pack. Being both stimulating and emotionally demanding, it leaves you with an inner dispute between your morality and the comfortable ignorance of the tale behind your morning fry up.
Dir: Joon-Ho Bong
Scr: Joon-Ho Bong, Jon Ronson
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Jake Gyllenhaal
Prd: Joon Ho Bong, Tilda Swinton, Dooho Choi, Dede Gardner, Lewis Taewan Kim, Jeremy Kleiner, Woo-sik Seo
VFX: Erik De Bour
DOP: Darius Khondji
Run Time: 118 Minutes