Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Pig in the cities: "Okja"

Approached from a distance, Okja might initially resemble a 21st century variant of The Yearling or Old Yeller, detailing all over again that time-honoured and invariably heartrending relationship between a bright-eyed moppet and their cute-as-a-button pet. The crucial difference is that both the pet and the project are substantially bigger. In the first instance, Okja is a genetically modified "superpig" farmed by a Monsanto-sounding corporate behemoth to provide better eating at lower overheads; in the second, Okja is a globetrotting action-adventure movie, the latest flourish from the idiosyncratic Korean talent Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host), premiered at Cannes yet made with Netflix money that allowed it to travel into cinemas and living rooms worldwide last Friday upon the flick of a single switch.

Unlike in The Host, this film's monster is introduced early, even casually, observed shambling through the woods in the company of his besotted teenage keeper Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), hunting nuts and fish and evacuating his bowels in quasi-spectacular fashion via a digitised sphincter. (You can hear the techies in the backroom: "How's that anus coming along?") We're told that Mija has already been abandoned once - by her late parents - so we sense she isn't about to leave the side of her porcine sweetheart so easily, and especially not once corporate goons arrive to reclaim their product for repositioning in a New York shop window. It's a ruthless severing of the bond between girl and pig, and one that causes our heroine to go full Animal Liberation Front, stealing off in pursuit with the aim of bringing home the bacon in one piece.

Mija's quest, which will bring her in contact with twin Tilda Swintons (as the rival sisters heading the enterprise), Jake Gyllenhaal as a wildlife presenter seemingly styled after Geraldo Rivera, and Paul Dano as the leader of an uncommonly unapologetic ALF faction, has an instructional drive: we're watching a nature girl negotiating her first deals with an increasingly cutthroat universe. Bong's heavily storyboarded images serve to crystallise a number of real-world struggles. Darius Khondji's typically gilded cinematography punches up the obvious contrast between Mija's evergreen homeland and the corporate sphere's cool metal and glass, yet Bong senses how that coldness can permeate personal relationships: witness the sorry sight of the girl and her badly compromised grandfather, scrabbling over one another for scattered pennies - a pitiful lifetime's savings - on the floor of the latter's hut.

This director's image savvy encompasses an understanding of optics within the business sector. One Swinton has cause to lament leaked footage of her minions "abusing that little girl - and in the uniforms I personally designed"; when Gyllenhaal comes eye to eye with Okja in the company's R&D lab, he can be heard to murmur "I'm not supposed to hurt you in here... at least not visibly." The shrewd casting extends to Giancarlo Esposito, poker-faced frontman of Netflix mainstays Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, as Swinton's Machiavellian adjutant. In essence, then, the film is another modern corporate fable, to be filed alongside the likes of Jurassic World - and yet it's far less reassuring than that might sound, Bong seeking at every turn to undermine the business-knows-best mentality of the film's megabudget predecessors.

It is, one should also say, very funny in places, proposing that satire and mischief might be vital weapons against unsmiling tyranny in all its forms. Co-writer Jon Ronson - yes, that Jon Ronson - spies the absurd extremes opening up on either side of his heroine: he has as much fun razzing the ALF contingent as he has done the oddbods and tinfoil hat wearers in his bestselling books. One liberator passes out from malnutrition, loath as he is even to eat vegetables ("He's trying to leave the smallest footprint he can"); another bears an uncanny resemblance to Julian Assange; even Dano, as the group's gentlemanly figurehead, trails memories of his buttoned-down There Will Be Blood zealot. In the end, only the purity of the girl's selfless affection for her pig counts, matching as it does Bong's affection for his own Frankenstory.

By all accounts, Bong had an unhappy experience with 2013's Snowpiercer, a trainbound fantasia whose barrelling momentum was checked by the Weinstein Company and only belatedly restored when US Netflix sneaked it onto their roster; handed $50m and creative carte blanche by the latter, he's turned in a work that proves eccentric in ways a studio version of this tale would never have been allowed to be. You can lament the language that places this 15-rated adventure beyond the reach of those who might seek Beanie Baby Okjas for Christmas, but then that's how grown-ups talk in the real world; you could raise an eyebrow at the weirdly bleak final movement towards the slaughterhouse, or reason that maybe it's no bleaker than Bambi, which itself did so much to turn successive generations green. Better, I think, to acknowledge that Okja is unmistakably its own odd thing, and that its ready availability at the push of a button might well be considered a source of joy. Bong appears to have leapt into this potentially overwhelming logistical project in the same manner as his ALFers leap into the fray: with the hearty battle cry "No compromise!"

Okja is now showing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream on Netflix.     

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