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Cannes 2017 – Okja Review

by Zhuo-Ning Su

So Netflix was booed twice at the first press screening of OKJA this morning. In a rare turn of events, the projection in the magnificent Grand Théâtre Lumière was off, leaving a hyper Tilda Swinton chirping about a plan to end world hunger with the top of her head cut off from view. The problem wasn’t fixed until five minutes into the film and by the time the lights dimmed and Netflix flashed bright red across the screen once again, the catcalls repeated like rehearsed.

How do you solve a problem like Netflix? The question of whether content produced not for the theatrical experience can still be called cinema, let alone allowed to compete at film festivals is difficult and fraught with different interests. When you look at something like OKJA, however, the answer is actually quite clear: it’s Cannes’ loss if they don’t show it.

Which is not to say the man vs. creature action drama by Korean director Bong Joon Ho is going to beat Russian auteurs and French legends for Palme. Quite the contrary, it’s hard to picture this politically minded but decidedly mainstream offering scoring with the likes of Almodóvar or Sorrentino. But does it tell a good story with a worthy message and kick some serious ass while doing it? You bet it does.

The premise is pretty neat: a biotechnology company is launching a decade-long project to raise 26 offsprings from a rare species of piglets all over the world and crown the ultimate super pig at the end, promising a unique creature that’s economically sustainable, environmentally friendly and – most importantly – source of top quality meat. With the time nearly up, the company sends out a scientist/animal show host (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his team to shepard back the candidates including Okja, a now tremendously-sized creature raised in the mountains of rural Korea by teenage girl Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her grandfather.

The first hour of the film is fast-paced and surprisingly funny. We meet a colorful cast of characters including casually evil corporate types (the head of which played with delicious compulsion and visible glee by Swinton), a cuckoo celebrity has-been (Gyllenhaal in high-pitched „I’m overdoing this but I don’t care“ mode), a group of radical animal rights activists led by the always enjoyable Paul Dano, and of course our endearingly strong-willed heroine and her soulful pet/companion. From Seoul to New York, agendas clash as an adorable beast crashes through tunnels and into subway stations.

As proved in his critically acclaimed blockbusters THE HOST and most recently SNOWPIERCER, Bong knows what he’s doing when it comes to staging complex setpieces. With the help of legendary DP Darius Khondji and an excellent editing team, he pulls off a couple more sophisticated, breathtakingly sleek chase sequences here. Whether produced by a streaming service or not, the feeling of a quickened pulse and tingling sense of mischief at the sight of a giant pig wreaking havoc in the city is among the greatest pleasures cinema can offer.

If the second half of OKJA can’t quite keep up with the live wire act that is the first, it does serve up a sobering depiction of the carnivorous corporate culture of the day and the cruelty we inflict on animals on a daily basis. Less than subtle in their delivery for sure, but important reminders nonetheless.

In terms of Oscars, this does not seem like a contender not only because of the Netflix-DNA but also its inherent populist appeal.