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‘Okja’ reminds us of friendship and factory farming

by

Special To The Japan Times

Bong Joon-ho’s latest film, “Okja,” received a four-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival in May, an about-face reaction from the loud boos heard at the beginning of the screening. Those were likely due to a technical failure that delayed the screening for a good 15 minutes, and for which the festival committee later apologized.

The film itself, however, could be described as unapologetic. After impressing critics with “The Host” (2006) and “Snowpiercer” (2013), the South Korean filmmaker delivers a masterful sci-fi tale that acts like a swift kick in the face of corporate globalism. A Netflix original, “Okja” is lovely to behold and razor -sharp with satire (especially in its observations of the West). In an industry that sometimes appears to cave to the rules of marketing, Bong’s brand would be the rebel.

Okja
Rating
Run Time 120 mins
Language ENGLISH, KOREAN;

The film is in English and Korean ( another taboo-breaker since, according to research, audiences hate subtitles). No worries there, though: Bong has enlisted a stream of Hollywood A-listers to impress. He also introduces the formidable acting abilities of 13-year-old Ahn Seo-hyun, who demonstrates an absolute flair for action scenes combined with an emotional depth that makes “Okja” an unforgettable experience.

The film tells the story of Mija (Ahn) and her best friend Okja, a giant super-pig, who live together in harmonious bliss in a lush South Korean forest. All is well until the laughably narcissistic Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of Mirando Corporation, issues an order to collect Okja and deliver the pig to New York. Lucy has a claim on Okja that Mija knew nothing about — her beloved pig is a actually a genetically enhanced mutant, created to revolutionize the food industry.

Ahn is effortlessly wonderful as the single-minded teen fighting to save her friend, and Swinton’s Lucy is a treat to watch, especially as she also plays Lucy’s more evil twin, Nancy. This is Swinton’s second outing in a Bong movie following “Snowpiercer,” and in both works she gives new meaning to the word “diabolical.” Don’t miss the opening scene in which Lucy sets the tone with a zany corporate promo video that unveils her plans to end world hunger with an “all natural” meat product that “tastes f—-ing good.” Actually, Okja and her siblings are anything but natural — they’re better. With great depths of intelligence and empathy, she bears no malice and has no intention of mischief.

Much of “Okja” is sheer visual poetry, the kind you’ll see in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away” but with less dreaminess and much more urgency. The political message is more clearly defined too, and in this way “Okja” channels “E.T.,” with its scathing indictment of institutional greed. Sensitive kids may not take to the story, which gets rather explicit about the cruelty involved in producing factory-processed meat, the lobbyists and corporations that support it and the ignorance of the consumers that buy into the “all natural” myth.

To drive his points home, Bong makes full use of stars like Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays a glib TV zoologist spewing all the wrong things at just the right time, and Paul Dano, who steals some scenes as Jay, a mega-sensitive animal-rights activist. Jay engineers Okja’s kidnapping from Mirando, but it’s likely that he’s more interested in furthering his own cause than the creature’s well-being.

Ultimately, however, this film belongs to the girl and her pig — all the way. Their only agenda is to be together again, which turns out to be the strongest statement of all. When viewing, keep a box of tissues handy — and pork off the menu.