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Okja — a rollicking fable

Okja — a rollicking fable

May 19
18:03 2017

It’s just an everyday story of a girl and her flatulent, genetically engineered super-pig. Welcome to the wonderfully imaginative world of Korean film-maker Bong Joon-Ho, who has captivated Cannes (or most of it) with Okja, a rollicking fable that takes in corporate greed, swine husbandry and scattergun scatology. The slapstick comedy, heated confrontation and bestial foot-stamping was not confined to the screen, however. There was some of this too at Okja’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

The first boos greeted the Netflix logo (the streaming giant has been banned from future editions for refusing to release its movies in cinemas). Then there was outright uproar when a projection snafu resulted in Tilda Swinton’s head being cut off. Some of us wondered if this was Netflix getting its own back or Cannes teaching Netflix a lesson about restricting films to undersized screens. It turned out to be a more mundane technical issue — but the offending projectionist would still be wise to keep a low profile.

Eventually Swinton reappeared, safely recapitated, and we were plunged into Okja’s world once more. The ever-shape-shifting Swinton, who excelled as a harpyish villainess in Bong’s previous film, Snowpiercer, does so again here as Lucy Mirando, peroxide-haired head of a dynastic agrochemical empire that promises to end global food shortages by cultivating a breed of GM pig.

Mirando has sent specimens to various locations across the world to monitor their development, and so we are transported to lush Korean mountains where farm girl Mija (An Seo Hyun) spends her days roaming the hills blissfully with her oversized sow, Okja. She rides it, feeds it persimmons and pats its bottom to aid bowel movement. The CGI beast has a convincing blubbery heft and a bashful expression — like Babe on steroids — and Hyun does a fine job acting opposite God-knows-what.

Okja, it turns out, is the world’s premiere super-pig and is to be honoured at a ceremony in New York. But Mirando is telling porkies: the corporation’s supposed eco-friendliness is pure greenwash, and in fact Okja faces a sticky (possibly barbecue-sauced) end. When Mija gets wind of this, she embarks on a rescue mission, eventually teaming up with a band of animal rights activists led by do-gooder Paul Dano (all melting eyes and dripping sincerity).

Bong’s wildly inventive visual style is captivating and as action sequences take over there is never a dull moment and seldom a sane one. Even the more earnest moments of sermonising on animal cruelty are balanced by exuberant humour, often deadpan. At times the more cartoonish elements do get out of control: Jake Gyllenhaal hams it up as a gawky and garrulous TV naturalist who makes Steve Irwin look morose. And the basic set-up — a bond between a child and a big, friendly giant — is familiar from everything from Pete’s Dragon to The Iron Giant and, yes, The BFG. But Bong has such an idiosyncratic vision that Okja always feels fresh. Like Snowpiercer, this brings much-needed new life to a popular cinematic landscape overcrowded with ageing franchises and endless reboots.

Quite what Okja is doing In Competition at Cannes is debatable, but if there’s one place it certainly does belong, it’s on a full-size cinema screen.

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