When asked about all the disturbing slabs of meat and sense of death in his paintings, the artist Francis Bacon often replied that, if you wanted real horror, “then you only need to think about the meat on your plate.”
In his own playful, stylistically fluid way, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho uses his sci-fi comedy Okja to do the same thing: it forces us to confront the everyday horror of the meat on our plates. Assuming you’re not a vegetarian already, Okja may just convince you to switch pork sausages for soya ones.
Okja is what’s known as a super pig – a gigantic mammal reared and slaughtered to feed a growing populace. These super pigs were discovered and spread around the world by an American corporation called Mirando, headed up by its flamboyant boss, Lucy (Tilda Swinton). For the past decade, farmers from all corners of the globe have been rearing their own super pigs, with the aim being to submit their largest beast to be entered into a televised competition in Manhattan. In rural South Korea, young farm girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has spent her entire childhood growing up with Okja, a likeably clumsy creature the size and colour of a hippopotamus and as gentle and cuddly as Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro.
Unbeknown to Mija, her grandfather’s already agreed to have Okja submitted to the super pig competition in New York – which effectively means that the poor animal, once it’s had its five minutes of fame on television, is headed to the slaughter house. Fixed on saving her best friend, Mija smashes her piggy bank, snatches up some spare clothes and heads off on a big adventure, which takes in Seoul, New York, a screamingly camp TV zoologist played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and several members of the Animal Liberation Front.
Headed up by Jay (Paul Dano), the small group of activists aim to expose the cruelty going on behind the Mirando Corporation’s cheery public image, and want to use Okja to capture the incriminating evidence they need. Mija, meanwhile, just wants to rescue Okja and head back to her home in the mountains.
In his best-known films – among them Memories Of Murder, The Host and Snowpiercer – Joon-ho’s shown an individual talent for shifting between tones. In Okja, he masterfully slides between light and dark, earnest drama and antic comedy, childhood adventure and grotesque satire. Through Darius Khondji’s lush cinematography and some superb CGI work, the film creates a world that is recognisable yet ever so slightly askew. Okja itself is a wonderful creation, and again, its design expertly treads the boundary between the cartoonish and the photo-real.
With its depiction of gaudy, loud corporate events and glib TV personalities, Okja occasionally feels like The Hunger Games directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The guide through this world of celebrity and animal slaughter is Ahn Seo-hyun, whose quietly expressive performance grounds the whole movie. Lost for much of a film in an English speaking world, Mija’s determination and love for her best friend are largely communicated through Seo-hyun’s physical performance, and it’s as beguiling as it is seemingly effortless. Then again, Paul Dano’s also quietly effective as Jay, the soft-spoken leader of the ALF. Your mileage may vary with Gyllenhaal, who puts in one of the most over-the-top performances of his career; whatever you make of it, there are moments in here – such as a scene where reclines on a rising podium – that are unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.
The overall effect of all these varied tones and performances, however, is a story that is as difficult to predict as Okja herself. Skittering as it does from heartfelt joy to scenes approaching outright horror, Joon-ho’s movie, which he co-wrote with Jon Ronson, uses its humour to make some serious points about corporations and the way they present themselves. Tilda’s grinning CEO introduces herself by apologising for the history of her family-run company – it once made napalm, among other things – but really, she’s just the friendly of another lizard-brained company that puts profits before ethics.
Okja isn’t an anti meat-eating screed, either; it’s worth noting that Mija and her grandfather eat fish and keep chickens. Rather, it explores the disturbing nature of industrialising the process of rearing and killing – the ghoulish side of meat eating that most of us in rich countries with supermarkets and neatly-packaged food would prefer not to think about. Okaja is, in short, the funniest and sweetest movie ever made about the meat on the world’s plates.
Okja is out now on Netflix and in selected UK cinemas.