Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando in a scene from Okja. Barry Wetcher / Netflix via AP
Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando in a scene from Okja. Barry Wetcher / Netflix via AP

Okja is a movie that wants to make us more-responsible food consumers

It will be hard to find a wackier film about the ills of mass meat production than Okja.

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho – whom Quentin Tarantino has compared to Steven Spielberg – is a master of mixing genres and tonal shifts. He specialises in fantasy films with messages for adults. As with his 2006 hit, The Host, his new film uses an outlandish creature to highlight ecological mayhem.

It stars Tilda Swinton as the neurotic, dastardly new chief executive of the Mirando Corporation. In creating Lucy Mirando, Swinton says she had several characteristics in mind.

“She is part vestigial virgin, part Barbie doll, part spa manager. But that sort of sense of her being super-wholesome, it’s all a façade.”

Mirando has a plan. She will change the evil reputation of the company she has inherited by giving it a new eco-friendly face. As such, her Mirando Corporation will genetically modify and breed new super-animals that will reduce food costs and have no environmental footprint. In this way, they can feed the world and at the same time create a popular reality TV show based around these animals.

Twenty-six of these genetically modified animals are sent around the planet, where they are brought up in different environments for a decade to see what conditions will enable these creates to become bigger, fatter and tastier.

In South Korea, a sweet, young, innocent girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), has made a pet of her creature. She has given it a name, Okja, and we see them frolicking in the countryside, helping each other out of tight spots.

The creature is a marvel of CGI. It's part pig and part dog; the size of a hippo, with furry skin and an amenable, doting personality. It has been brought to life by visual effects (VFX) supervisor Erik De Boer, who previously worked on Life of Pi.

Bong is full of praise about the detail around creating Okja, "While the audience looks at the outer exterior of Okja, the VFX team always looks at the bone structure, the fat and the ligaments. Erik really refrained from making the character look like a Disney cartoon."

But when Mirando recalls the animals, the company run into problems. Mija doesn't want to let Okja go. She is supported by a group of bumbling, well-intentioned animal-rights activists played by Paul Dano, Lily Collins and Steven Yeun. They believe the Mirando Corporation is exploiting food for its own ends, and uncover the poor conditions of the animals.

"Once you understand the issues and do the research, you can be a more conscious consumer," Dano says.

But the film goes out of its way to show that animal-rights activists have their own foibles and problems, which in their own way are just as bad and ruthless as those of the food corporations.

The film is not trying to convert us to veganism, but it does want to raise awareness. "I'm not vegetarian, but it certainly talked to me about the complexity of the issues surrounding the food industry," Yeun says.

How we feed more than seven billion people is a complex question and one that doesn't have easy answers. But can we do so ethically? That is the dilemma at the heart of Okja.

"I don't have a problem with people eating animals – after all animals eat animals, we are carnivores," says Bong. "In the pre-capitalist era, the way we prepared the food and ate it was fine by me, but once mass production and capitalism was introduced, it consumed the animal consumption business and problems started to arise."

Bong visited an abattoir in Colorado whilst writing Okja and was shocked by how even an organic cow was dissembled and packaged into food using cold, metallic machinery. "When you see that in person, it is very shocking," he says.

Yet the beauty of Okja is that first and foremost it is a movie designed to entertain and make us laugh. There are myriad eccentric side-characters. Not least Dr Johnny Wilcox, a zoologist who is the public face of the Mirando Corporation.

To play the part, Jake Gyllenhaal sports a furry moustache, and long shorts. He speaks in a high-pitch tone taking his cue from watching children's presenters on YouTube. "It's interesting in that world, to speak to children, there is a strange affectation that people seem to take, we all seem to do it in one way or another, and these bad performances just become magnified when they are television."

He sees Doctor Johnny as a Shakespearean figure. "He has to turn himself into something that he's not, because he's desperate for attention," he says. "The audience hates him, and he doesn't mean to be hated – I kind of love that about the character."

Okja is on Netflix from June 28.


Date started: 2012

Founder: Amir Barsoum

Based: Dubai, UAE

Sector: HealthTech / MedTech

Size: 300 employees

Funding: $22.6 million (as of September 2018)

Investors: Technology Development Fund, Silicon Badia, Beco Capital, Vostok New Ventures, Endeavour Catalyst, Crescent Enterprises’ CE-Ventures, Saudi Technology Ventures and IFC

The specs

Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo

Power: 201hp at 5,200rpm

Torque: 320Nm at 1,750-4,000rpm

Transmission: 6-speed auto

Fuel consumption: 8.7L/100km

Price: Dh133,900

On sale: now

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