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EIFF 2017: Okja (2017)

Overview:

In 2007 the Mirando Corporation led by CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) concocts a breed of “super pig” whose meat has the potential to solve global hunger. 26 of these creatures are distributed to farmers across the globe to be nurtured and brought up, and the best of these will be brought back and presented at a ceremony as the breed to be used for meat production.

Fast-forward 10 years, and one of the pigs (named Okja) has been raised in the company of elderly South Korean farmer Hee Bong (played by Byun Hee-bong) and his granddaughter Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn). The latter loves Okja’s company and spends her days playing with it in the mountains surrounding their home. When Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), eccentric presenter of the TV programme Animal Magic and promotional face of the Super Pig programme, arrives at their farm, the pair are initially overjoyed to hear that Okja has won the competition. However, when Mija finds out that Okja is to be taken away - first to Seoul and then on to New York for the ceremony and, ultimately, to be carved up into joints - she is devastated. As compensation, Hee Bong gives her a gold pig. However, this doesn’t stop the headstrong girl from smashing open her piggy bank and amassing enough money to head for the big city.

Paul Dano and Lily Collins as animal activists in Okja

Once there, she manages to break into the local Mirando offices in an attempt to get back her beloved animal. When she looks out of a window she sees it being pushed into the back of a truck. She runs after it and finally manages to get on top of the vehicle. However, it also seems that an animal rights organisation called the Animal Liberation Front, led by Jay (Paul Dano) wants to take the creature out of Mirando’s clutches. The rest of the film follows Mija and Okja’s adventures as various factions and vested interests emerge in both Mirando and the ALF.

Watch a trailer:


Review:

As with Joon-ho Bong’s previous film (Snowpiercer which, lamentably, has never received a proper UK release due to a history of disagreements between the director and its distribution rights-holders The Weinstein Company), Okja proves that it is possible to create a spectacular, FX-heavy fantasy without kowtowing to the usual commercial or genre straitjackets, and without treating the audience like they are babies. At its heart it’s a touching relationship between child and creature (the latter charmingly realised with a seamless mixture of CGI and practical effects), and yet, surrounding it, the screen blazes with anarchic creative energy. It’s funny without being lightheaded, exciting without being mindless, sweet without being cloying, epic without feeling bloated and thought-provoking without being poe-faced.

Also, despite the ostensibly family-friendly central relationship and wild (but impeccably choreographed) slapstick action sequences, Okja is not a film for children. There are plentiful uses of the f-word along with some brutal scenes of violence (although these never go further than needed for Joon-ho Bong to make his points), but there are also complexities and shades of grey in the character motivations, and pertinent satirical jabs at the squeaky-clean image that corporations present so that the public will continue to remain blind to their sinister underside. The film’s opening sequence featuring Lucy Mirando is a perfect example of the film’s sharp satirical wit: a succession of trendily self-righteous feel-good buzzwords and eye-pleasing infographics selling the Super Pig concept in such a flashy manner that the temptation is to just go blindly along with it - until you (as the film does) start to see more of the story.

Okja is an audio-visual feast, and not just in the impressive realisation of its titular creature. Joon-ho Bong makes great use of overhead shots, tracking camerawork and slow motion throughout, fluidly tying together the film’s blend of genres into one vast, free-flowing piece of entertainment. The use of sound is also superb, with Jaeil Jung’s orchestral score providing heart-stopping dramatic resonance to the film’s more memorable images.

The performances are worthy of note, in particular Tilda Swinton in a duel role as two sisters (one charismatic but ignorant of the damage her corporation is doing, the other just coldly heartless), Paul Dano as the innately decent but somewhat fanatical head to the ALF, and Seo-Hyun Ahn as an incredibly single-minded young heroine whose depths of love for Okja informs the audience’s identification with her. Giancarlo Esposito also solidly reprises his calmly sinister presence from Breaking Bad. Unfortunately, Shirley Henderson and Jake Gyllenhaal fare less well; although I like both performers, here they tend to go overboard and spill into outright caricature - in particular the latter.

Despite this, and the fact that its overall message tends to be delivered in a somewhat heavy-handed manner on occasion, Okja has such an endlessly creative sense of fun that it generates a tidal wave of goodwill, effortlessly sweeping up such minor misgivings.

Runtime: 118 mins

Dir: Joon-ho Bong

Script: Joon-ho Bong, Jon Ronson

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Byun Hee-bong, Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Henderson, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

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