Controversy has courted Bong Joon Ho’s Okja at every turn. First, it drew criticism as Netflix’s debut entry at the Cannes Film Festival, where cinephiles booed at one of the screenings, maddened at a streaming service rubbing shoulders with traditional studios. Next came a disagreement with three of South Korea’s biggest cinema chains; unhappy with the US giant’s distribution model, they tried to delay its release by three weeks. That failed, but it’s been a bumpy ride for the Brad Pitt-produced drama.
Okja is the story of Mija, a young girl who lives with her grandfather in the countryside near Seoul. They’re gifted a cute ‘super-pig’ by an American multinational company and told to raise it in competition with others around the globe. Ten years later, the suits return to collect their prize, with the intention of selling Mija’s best friend into extra-succulent, low-cost jerky. What follows is a thrilling chase across the Pacific to New York, where she risks all to save her porcine companion.
Don’t be fooled by its cartoon humour and feelgood flavour: Okja packs an emotional punch. One moment, girl and pet are frolicking in a lagoon, the next we’re pondering the evils of the meat trade. This contrast is meant to add shock factor, but instead creates an uneven feel. Still, there’s fun to be had. The starry cast includes Jake Gyllenhaal as a zany, Steve Irwin-type TV presenter (Dr Johnny Wilcox). Tilda Swinton is on top form as evil businesswoman Lucy Mirando. Paul Dano has a brilliant turn as an impassioned animal rights activist (Jay) who befriends Mija. When these heavyweights are on screen, sparks fly and the story bursts into life. Okja can’t decide if it’s straightforward, family entertainment or a serious social commentary. But as this wild adventure progresses, it finds itself mastering both worlds.