It’s been four years since Bong Joon-ho’s last film, terrific sci-fi action-satire Snowpiercer (imagine a horizontal version of High-Rise, set on a train), yet still it awaits a UK release on any format. Given the critical raves and that it stars Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell and the late, great John Hurt, the decision of Harvey Weinstein to shelf it is perplexing. Consider that South Korean maestro Bong previously made Mother, The Host and Memories of Murder, and its consignment to a fate of gathering dust is criminal.
Who knows, maybe the arrival of the rather wonderful ‘super-pig’ movie Okja will nudge Weinstein’s conscience, or at least offer him a chance to, ahem, piggyback its success. For success is what Okja most certainly deserves, this thrillingly peculiar movie shuffling genres and tones as is Bong’s wont to offer a supersized dose of entertainment while force-feeding its urgent politics down viewers’ necks until we wretch.
It begins with Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of a multinational conglomerate, publically pronouncing her firm’s new initiative: 26 piglets, bred in a lab, will be sent to far-flung locales; in 10 years’ time they will be gathered back to New York to see who has raised the superior ‘super-pig’.
Smash cut to the misty mountains of South Korea a decade later, and one of the pigs, Okja, happily splashes in a waterhole with his beloved owner Mija (An Seo Hyan). Now the size of an SUV, Okja has expressive brown eyes and a huge heart, endangering his own life to save young Mija when she trips and dangles over a cliff. The two are inseparable.
Until, that is, the sweaty, sleazy reps of the Miranda Corporation – led by the self-proclaimed “face of the company”, TV zoologist Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) – pant their way to the top of the mountain to reclaim their beast.
What follows clashes action and satire, distressing drama and wacky, wonky comedy, as Mija follows her prized porcine to first Seoul and then New York, and is aided in her attempts to free him by a posse of Animal Liberation Front activists led by the self-importantly selfless Jay (Paul Dano).
The script, by Bong and Jon Ronson, finds time to gently mock these bleeding-heart liberals for their earnest convictions, hypocrisy and ineptitude, but saves its own righteous anger for the GM food industry –the mistreatment that befalls Okja and his kind is detestable, the scenes in a slaughterhouse as hard to stomach as those in Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation. (Much as the poster of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left encouraged viewers to ‘Keep telling yourself… it’s only a movie… it’s only a movie… it’s only a movie’, you might want to whisper the mantra ‘It’s only a CG pig… it’s only a CG pig… it’s only a CG pig’ to get through this.)
To elicit such a reaction, of course, the effects must be flawless, and here the CGI, supervised by Oscar-winner Erik-Jan De Boer (Life of Pi), rivals the creations of ILM or Weta on their best days, and is immaculately integrated with animatronics. Be it sniffing through verdant foliage, rampaging across department stores or cattle-prodded in the back of meat trucks, Okja is rendered with physical and emotional heft, while the talented An's interaction with the creature only deepens viewers’ belief.
Less successful is Gyllenhaal’s too-broad turn as the zany, vainglorious zoologist – strip away the shrill voice, handlebar ‘tache and knock-knees revealed by unflattering shorts, and there would be nothing left, so cartoonish is his creation.
There’s also some unnecessary nonsense around Swinton's role, but bum notes are sure to sound in a film this tonally daring. For the most part it’s a triumph, gorgeously shot by ace DoP Darius Khondji and boasting a beast and a message as potent as those featured in Bong’s delightful monster movie The Host.
Okja might not be a prize winner in the main competition strand, but it will surely be another crowd-pleasing international hit for its director. And hopefully persuade Weinstein to finally bless UK viewers with the gift of Snowpiercer.