With Okja, Bong Joon Ho has delivered a terrific vegan blockbuster, an empathetic monster movie that is a thrilling exhibition of his talents.
Scripted by Joon Ho and Jon Ronson, the film begins as an outrageous media satire, where Tilda Swinton’s manicured CEO Lucy Mirando attempts to put a positive spin on a multinational’s plan to breed “super pigs” as a sustainable (and delicious) food source. They’re loaned out to various countries, to be raised for ten years and returned to New York for a competition – and inevitable slaughter. The only problem is that young Mija (An Seo Hyun) has grown up with her father’s pig, and now considers it a friend. She calls it Okja.
From the moment this thing bounds into the foreground, it announces itself as the most adorable thing ever dreamt up by computers. A cross between Totoro and a hippopotamus, the opening act sets up their bond perfectly; as they frolic in the streams and bushes of their lush mountainside retreat, one immediately thinks about the pastoral paradise of Hayao Miyazaki – and dreads what is to come. For while Jake Gyllenhaal’s visiting Dr Johnny Wilcox may seem like a ridiculous, high-pitched distraction; he takes the beast away, which forces Mija to join forces with the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) to save her animal from a world of syringes and meat-grinders.
The beachside opening set piece of Joon Ho’s The Host was one of sheer cinematic ecstacy, an exemplary combination of dynamic camerawork, staging and humour that is the director’s trademark. He almost tops it here with a chase through Seoul, when Jay (Paul Dano) and his team of polite animal rights activists attempt to free the animal; seeing a souvenir shop explode into slow-motion chaos while John Denver’s Annie’s Song plays is guaranteed to be the most fun you’ll have at the cinema this year.
While the energy flags in the second half, there’s a powerful thread of pathos that runs through even its most madcap moments. The satirical take on capitalism and the media would have seemed trite, were it not for the fact that the bond between animal and human is played perfectly straight, rivalling ET for moments of heart-stopping, “please don’t die!” panic. And its message isn’t to be underestimated: it’s a film that confronts the hypocrisy of eating animals pretending they aren’t real by making its CGI creature a living, breathing embodiment of pathos.
And while Netflix may currently be at the centre of an (exhausting) storm of controversy, it’s hard to imagine how such an esoteric, big-budget film could have been made elsewhere without compromises. Okja is a picture to be treasured – though if you can, see it on the biggest screen possible.
Okja is released on Netflix on 28th June 2017.
Read more of our reviews from the festival here.
For further information about Cannes Film Festival 2017 visit here.
Watch the trailer for Okja here: