Film Review: Okja has a touching message at its heart

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Okja, the first Netflix original to premier at Cannes film festival, sparked fierce debate when its Netflix title card was booed, writes Natalie Stendall.

Should feature-length films made for streaming be considered cinema? Cannes says not.

From next year, the festival will only screen films that receive a theatrical release. Their decision fails to reflect the quality of films like Okja, which rivals the best of theatrical releases in ideas, performance and spectacle.

Okja opens on an Apple style expo by Nancy Mirando, played by an exuberant and satirical Tilda Swinton. Overpopulation has led to a food shortage but the Mirando Corporation has a solution: a newly discovered breed of giant super pig. Fourteen year old Mija (Seo Hyun) has spent her whole life raising one of these intelligent and sensitive animals, Okja, in the South Korean Mountains.

When the Mirando’s decade-long project comes to an end, Mija refuses to give her up for inevitable slaughter.

From writer-director Bong Joon-Hoo, Okja delivers a powerful message about the industrialisation of food production and GM. Mija’s naturalistic hunter-gather lifestyle is a million miles away from that of the film’s city-based consumers chewing on plastic-wrapped jerky, utterly removed from the reality of meat production.

Mija and Okja have a compelling bond, but Joon-Hoo doesn’t pedal a vegan message: Mija herself eats meat. Rather he directs our attention to the brutality of large scale farming operations, animal rights and consumerism.

With such sombre subject matter, what’s most surprising about Okja is its humour.

Jake Gyllenhaal is outlandish as a washed-up and cliched nature show presenter working for Mirando. As he exploits the animals he loves we witness a car-crash dance of euphoria and misery that mocks society’s own incompatible adoration of the animals it eats.

Okja has a handful of plot holes, yet Joon-Hoo fills these with an undercurrent of sweeping emotion. That Okja manages to get us teary-eyed over a CGI pig is a testament, not only to Seo-Hyun’s committed performance but to the sincere, relatable and galvanising messages at its heart.

4/5