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Cannes 2017: Netflix’s Okja is a bonkers corporate satire starring Tilda Swinton and a superpig

The surprisingly touching new film about factory farming, from Snowpiercer director Bong Joon Ho, premiered to acclaim and controversy.

Tilda Swinton and An Seo Hyun in Okja
Tilda Swinton and An Seo Hyun in Okja
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Cannes loves its controversy, whether it’s about Woody Allen or high heels on the red carpet. This year the controverse du festival kicked off early, when two Netflix films were selected to play in competition, and then met resistance from French theater owners since the films aren’t slated for theatrical release in France. The festival announced a new policy (beginning in 2018) in response, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings voiced his disapproval, and at the opening press conference on Wednesday, Will Smith feuded with Pedro Almodóvar over it.

It stayed quiet until Friday morning, when the first of the two Netflix films, Bong Joon Ho’s Okja, played at the Grand Théâtre Lumière for critics in advance of its evening premiere. There was no surprise (and a lot of laughter) when people booed at the appearance of the Netflix logo before the film. It would have been more surprising if nobody made a sound.

But as the film continued, the noise went on, particularly from the theater’s upper mezzanine. (I was on the orchestra level.) For the first seven minutes of the film — as Tilda Swinton, in a blond blunt-cut wig and braces, introduces herself as the new CEO of pharmachemical giant the Mirando Corporation — the noise grew louder and louder, with loud rhythmic clapping from both levels of the theater. We were all catching on to what was going on.

It wasn’t anti-Netflix protests: The theater was just projecting the film wrongly, with the top of the screen masked so that it cut off Swinton’s head at one point. Whoops.

The film stopped, the lights came up, journalists started frantically tweeting about it, inventing a (mostly joking) rumor that it was sabotage from Netflix to undercut the pro-theater case that all movies are meant to be seen on the big screen. Then it was fixed, and the movie started over. (Thankfully, nobody minded seeing that Swinton scene twice.)

The somewhat bizarre event is oddly fitting for Okja, which is every bit as weird — and on the whole as wonderful — as you’d expect from the director of Snowpiercer and The Host (easily my favorite monster movie of all time). That goes double when Bong has co-written the screenplay with Frank screenwriter Jon Ronson.

The movie kicks off in 2007, when the Mirando Corporation, founded by the father of CEO Lucy Mirando (Swinton), is in search of a serious image revamp after committing some light atrocities against mankind. Lucy — who succeeds her sister Nancy in the job — has come up with the idea of sending out 26 “superpiglets,” bred from a happy and unusually excellent pig discovered at a farm in Chile, to farmers around the globe. The idea is that each superpiglet will be bred according to local farming practices, and in a decade they’ll be judged in a globally broadcasted contest helmed by Mirando’s new face, television personality Dr. Johnny Wilcox (a sweaty and unhinged Jake Gyllenhaal, pitching his voice into every register imaginable).

Then we jump forward to 2017. One of the superpiglets, named Okja, has been living a happy life with the farming family who raised her in the mountains of Korea. Her favorite person in the world is Mija (Ahn Seo Hyun), an orphan living with her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong). Mija was only 4 when Okja joined the family, and the pair grew up together frolicking in the woods, each the other’s caretaker.

A scene from Okja
A girl and her superpig.

But now, the time for the competition has come. The Mirando representatives arrive on the mountain, where Dr. Johnny proclaims Okja the best of the superpigs. As preparations are made to take Okja to the unveiling in New York City, Mija becomes determined to keep that from happening.

The story unfolds from there, combining madcap chase scenes and wry (but savage) corporate satire with touches borrowed from torture horror — except this time it’s about factory farming. There are ostensibly peaceful eco-terrorists, too, in the form of the cleverly named ALF (Animal Liberation Front), a group led by a very sincere young man named Jay (Paul Dano). The ALF tries to outsmart Mirando’s cadre of suits — especially Lucy and her chief henchman (Giancarlo Esposito) — and everything gets wildly out of hand.

And so it should. As a director, Bong’s great skill is soulful social satire, juxtaposing the absurd with surprisingly touching moments that help his films retain a kind of humanism that can sometimes be lacking in satirical works. In Okja there are psychopaths, for sure, but there are also people for whom practical concerns get in the way of ideals: Dr. Johnny is a self-proclaimed “animal lover” who finds himself in bed with Big Farming, and Jay can’t quite keep his crew of idealistic activists to their total no-harm stance.

Okja isn’t perfect; it falls down when the absurd and the serious ricochet back and forth between scenes, making it hard to track with the film’s tone. But it’s easily forgivable; this is a big, ambitious movie, and when it works, it is ridiculously fun.

Okja extends a more standard anti-factory farming stance in order to skewer the absurd ways in which corporations co-opt the language of environmental and localist movements to reel in consumers. The result is kind of a masterclass in how vocabulary can be twisted for insidious ends. Words like “natural!” and “eco-friendly!” are splashed across the screen behind Lucy Mirando as she announces the superpig competition. And the idea of having local farmers raise superpiglets is, of course, a handy way to camouflage what’s really going on at Mirando Corporation (in Paramus, New Jersey, of all places).

Jake Gyllenhaal in Okja
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a wild and weird TV personality in Okja.

If factory farming is an ugly product of the corporatization of American culture, so is the twisting of activist movements — from environmentalism to feminism to political ideologies — into corporate lingo, ideals cynically transformed into sales slogans. And Bong cleverly extends this to show how it affects cultures far beyond the borders of the US.

That this market critique comes from a movie so closely tied to Netflix, which has come in for all kinds of economic and corporate critique both here at Cannes and in general, makes it more than a little ironic. And there’s plenty about the company that’s concerning to people who care about both the business and aesthetics of cinema.

But Okja is also a rare breed of movie: it boasts a multi-hemispheric setting and cast, extended use of two languages, and the distinction of combining action, arthouse, and political satire in one funny, biting, disturbing, often kind of adorable package. Would traditional studios, with their proclivity for blandly appealing blockbuster fare, even have the guts to gamble on a film like Okja?

Okja releases on Netflix in the US and a number of other countries, including France, on June 28.

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