Dir: Bong Joon-ho. Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ahn Seo-Hyeon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick. 120 mins
Cannes has never boasted a competition film named after a giant, farting pig before, or indeed a film predestined to premiere on Netflix, who paid for it, rather than cinema screens. Before Okja began, the streaming site’s logo was accordingly greeted by a hearty mixture of jeers and cheers, the former intensifying after a minute or two, when it became clear the whole thing was being projected wrongly.
Given festival director Thierry Frémaux’s stern lectures about the sanctity of the filmgoing experience, it was a cruel irony that this particular screening got off to such a botched start.
Even when properly up and running, the film slips in and out of its groove. A diverting, intermittently clever, sometimes awkward blend of find-the-missing-pet adventure and anti-meat satire, it comes from the pen of Jon Ronson (a vegetarian with a dark sense of humour) and the fervid brain of Korean director Bong Joon-ho. It’s his second film to be largely in English after 2013’s Snowpiercer, which told a related but grimmer tale about a drastic food shortage.
A goofy prologue, delivered to us by front-of-house star Tilda Swinton as agrochemical CEO Lucy Mirando, explains how her company is aiming to combat global hunger: they have reared 26 “superpigs” and given them to farmers around the world, eventually to spearhead a revolution in meat production.
It’s a daffy concept, wobbling on the edge of facile, but Bong has a good track record (in 2006’s monster mash The Host, say), for cooking up such gonzo conceits and spinning them off in productive, tonally brave directions.
The relationship between Okja, a prize specimen being raised in the Korean countryside, and Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyeon) the young farmgirl who has raised him from piglethood, feels more cut out for a family-friendly story – Beethoven with bacon – once their separation is threatened. The Mirando Corporation, represented by a squeaking TV animal pundit called Mr Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal), arrive to claim their property, and Mija can only watch as the massive mound of grey blubber she thinks of as a best friend is protestingly bundled off.
Okja shares about equal screen time with the star names, and she’s better than Gyllenhaal, who makes a promising fist of his first scene and then rapidly lets himself go way overboard. Much more inspired is Swinton, in the double role of sisters with no love lost and an interestingly opposed take on corporate values.
Bong loves getting Swinton to accessorise – she wears dental braces and peroxide locks in one role, a kind of Republican-Burberry-predator outfit in the other. But there’s shading and bite that only she can insert: the avowedly well-meaning Lucy feels like she’s teetering on the edge of meltdown at all times, and her public appearances are riveting displays of stricken pantomime. Swinton was full-on to a fault as Snowpiercer’s toothy fascist, but here she’s right on the money.
Paul Dano’s mellow soulfulness also helps the cause, as the leader of an animal-rights action group who pignap Okja with their own agenda. Ronson’s writing for these characters is witty and enjoyable: take Devon Bostick’s Silver, a precious waif so devoted to lessening his carbon footprint he’ll even refuse tomatoes.
There’s a nifty plot manoeuvre in the middle involving an intentional mistranslation – blink during the subtitle and you’d miss it. These activists mess up as much as they put to rights, imperilling poor Mija from the moment they enter the story, but it’s pretty clear they’re the good guys.
Bong has proved his circus-ringmaster’s skill at madcap action sequences in the past, and proves it again, with a chase through a Seoul shopping mall, capped by a great use of John Denver’s Annie’s Song, an especially popping highlight. Okja is plenty of fun, and smart around the edges, but the girl-and-her-pig stuff can drag, and it feels like it’s pressing for resonance more than properly achieving it.
We wind up in a slaughterhouse, of course: Bong and Ronson definitely don’t want you waltzing out of their film and craving a hot dog. But the fable isn’t enriched as you might hope by the tonal schizophrenia it touts as an asset. It’s more like a kids’ meal for adults than an adult one for kids.