Director – Bong Joon-ho
Cast – Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins
Rating – 5/5
If getting booed at the Cannes Film Festival is considered a badge of honour, it is a badge Okja must wear with pride.
It joins a list of films – a list that will probably have you performing an almost comical double-take in a moment – that for various bizarre reasons, found themselves at the receiving end of the famously snooty French crowd’s ire.
In ’76, it was Martin Scorsese’s bleak and brutal Taxi Driver. In ’94, it was Quentin Tarantino’s cultural watershed Pulp Fiction. And in 2011, it was Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, The Tree of Life. Each of these classics was heckled at their Cannes screenings. And each of these films, despite the heckling, won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or.
In 2017, the honour (the booing, but sadly not the Palme) went to Okja, the new film by cult South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho – although for reasons we’ve never heard before. Despite ending with one of the most unexpectedly forceful tonal shifts in recent memory – the film goes from being a magical, Miyazaki-esque fable, to a horrifying skewering of mankind in the space of 30 minutes – the most controversial moment in Okja’s Cannes premiere came before it even began. When the Netflix logo ‘duh-dum-ed’ its way onto the screen, the old-school crowd let its disapproval (and fear of the future) be known. Critic David Ehrlich, tweeting from inside the Palais, described it as a ‘prison riot environment.’
It’s natural, as spoiled, needy human beings, for us to want better, never satisfied with what we have. Similarly, it is natural, while the glorious Okja unfolds before your eyes, to wonder just how different it would be on a big screen. Would it be better? Would it be worse? Would the lush Korean landscapes be more breathtaking? Or would the cracks in the CGI be more visible?
We will never know. And that is OK. Because despite making the cardinal sin of not being made available to your local multiplex, Okja does what most event movies and summer blockbusters, proudly shot in IMAX, can’t. It cares about its characters, its tone, its craft, and it has enough confidence in you, the audience, to stick with it, even when it becomes too challenging, and even when the mirror it holds up to your face reveals all the blemishes you’ve been trying to hide.
Its story begins several years ago, in a colourful prologue. Tilda Swinton plays the CEO of a powerful multi-national corporation, who, with great fanfare, announces the discovery of a new pig-like creature that her company will breed, and then ship off to 26 far-flung corners of the world, to live with local farmers.
10 years later, in a remote mountain-top farm in South Korea, one of the creatures, now grown up, bounds across the gorgeous countryside, a young girl by its side. She is Mija, the granddaughter of one of the farmers chosen to care for the animal, and she has named it, also a girl, Okja. This is their world. It is all they have. And it is all they need.
Wordlessly, with the aid of some truly wonderful creature design and visual effects, Bong conveys the essence of his film these opening scenes. It is a story about nature and nurture. It is a story about being an innocent child trapped in a harsh world run by adults who’ve been ruined by it, by greed, and by success.
But above all else, it is a story about the evil of mankind, and the depths to which we are capable of sinking. Much like his previous movie, the monumentally underrated Snowpiercer (another film in which he gave Tilda Swinton a memorably despicable character to play), Okja, too is a science fiction story, just as nihilistic, just as furious at our hypocrisy, and just as unforgettable.
Like Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, it addresses real-life horrors by replacing images seared into our minds with fantasy, with animals, and with humour.
And fantasy is what Mija needs, when one day, a sweaty, moustachioed, obnoxious American hikes up to her farm. He is Dr Johnny Wilcox, employee of the Tilda Swinton’s MNC, played by a screechingly over-the-top Jake Gyllenhaal, who comes bearing terrible news. In one fell swoop, he destroys Mija’s world. He has come to take Okja away from her.
Mija’s grandfather, a poor farmer, has already made the deal. It’ll keep food on their bellies. Perhaps it’ll pay for her education too. He’s only coming through the promise he made to her dead parents. He’s taking care of their daughter.
But Mija isn’t the sort of girl to take injustice lying down. She isn’t the sort of girl to resign herself to her fate – or to let Okja fall prey to hers. She packs a bag, breaks open her piggy bank, and journeys across the world to New York, where she plans to break into the headquarters of the Mirando Corporation, and rescue Okja.
Along the way, she is joined by members of the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), played by Paul Dano, Lilly Collins and Steven Yeun, who, despite having their own twisted agenda, are the closest the film comes to having decent people (besides Mija, of course).
In a fair world, Okja would have the power to make even the most belligerent meat eaters consider vegetarianism. It would make us question the truths we ignorantly accept. It would make us seek answers, challenge the consumerist culture we so blindly embrace. It would inspire change. But – and Okja would be the first to remind us of this – the world is hardly a fair place.
As an animal lover, I wouldn’t wish the very particular emotional jolt this movie delivers on my worst enemy. Be warned: There is very little hope here. There is only bleakness. But there’s no turning away from Okja. We must spread word about it. We must champion it. Because it is the first great film of 2017.