From Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho comes Netflix’s latest acquisition. It’s the most brilliantly mad thing I’ve seen in a long time.
Okja stars 13 year-old Korean actress Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija, a farmer taking part in the ‘Super Pig Project’ devised by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of meat supplying Mirando Corporation. When Okja, Mija’s super pig and best friend, is taken by Mirando, she sets out to get her back, but gets caught between Mirando and the (sort of terrorist activities of the) Animal Liberation Front.
The madness isn’t in the plot – although you are falling in love with a CGI creature that looks more like a floppy eared hippo than anything else.
The madness is in the fact that even though I genuinely cried at the end, Okja never misses a chance for a joke. Usually at the expense of its fully ridiculous characters.
That shouldn’t be surprising; Bong is good at pulling together really interesting casts. But with the exception of Mija, no character in Okja is taken particularly seriously – right up until it matters.
Take the villains. Most notable has to be Tilda Swinton’s Lucy Mirando, a highly-strung woman-child. At one point we see her sitting on the floor practicing her signature – complete with smiley face in the ‘y’ – in colouring pencils. She’s not just your typical evil CEO; she uncannily brings to mind Alice Tinker from The Vicar of Dibley.
But then around her there’s Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr Johnny, and Shirley Henderson as Jennifer, both in the process of breaking down. Dr Johnny’s an ex-TV naturalist and the face of the Mirando Corporation: over the hill, alcoholic, and constantly in the midst of a very camp attempt at a screaming fit (admittedly, it’s not a performance that’s won everyone over). Jennifer is Mirando’s put-upon assistant, anxiously and incompetently flapping herself away into a million pieces.
The Animal Liberation Front are at the other end of absurd. Though their intentions are noble, they clearly take themselves far too seriously, apologising their way through fight scenes, armed only with umbrellas and marbles. Paul Dano plays their leader with aggressive gentleness. The other significant member is played by The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun, using and abusing his power of translation.
The silliness and strangeness isn’t mocking – I read someone describe Okja as a live action Studio Ghibli movie, and that’s not far off the mark.
There’s sincerity at the heart of Okja. It wants to draw attention to the horror to capitalist industrialised farming. It wants to celebrate the love Mija has for Okja and for her whole world, and the determination of this girl to carry on her fight despite all the machinations of the Western characters and institutions.