Food for thought

South Korean di­rec­tor Bong Joonho and the stars of his new film, Okja – Tilda Swin­ton, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun and Jake Gyl­len­haal – tell about the is­sues it raises about the food in­dus­try, and the cre­ation of its CGI an­i­mal star

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It will be hard to find a wack­ier film about the ills of mass-mar­ket meat pro­duc­tion than Okja. South Korean di­rec­tor Bong Joon-ho – Quentin Tarantino has com­pared him to Steven Spiel­berg – is a mas­ter of mix­ing gen­res and tonal shifts. He spe­cialises in fan­tasy films with mes­sages for adults – as seen in his 2013 class- war­fare, cli­mate- change sci-fi thriller Snow­piercer.

As with his 2006 hit, The Host, Okja uses an out­landish crea­ture to high­light eco­log­i­cal con­cerns. It stars Tilda Swin­ton, re­united with Bong after a mem­o­rable role in Snow­piercer, as Lucy Mi­rando, the neu­rotic, das­tardly new chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Mi­rando Cor­po­ra­tion. In cre­at­ing the char­ac­ter, Swin­ton says she had sev­eral char­ac­ter­is­tics in mind.

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

Mi­rando has a plan. She will re­ha­bil­i­tate the evil rep­u­ta­tion of the com­pany she has in­her­ited, giv­ing it a new, eco-friendly makeover by ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neer­ing a new breed of su­per-an­i­mals that will re­duce food costs and leave no en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print. In this way, it will feed the world – and en­ter­tain it, too, through a pop­u­lar re­al­ity- TV show based around the an­i­mals.

Twenty-six of th­ese new, ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied an­i­mals are sent around the planet and raised in a va­ri­ety of en­vi­ron­ments for 10 years to see what con­di­tions best en­able them to grow big­ger, fat­ter and tastier.

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

The crea­ture is a marvel of CGI – part pig, part dog, the size of a hippo, with furry skin and an amenable, dot­ing per­son­al­ity. It was brought to life by visual-ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Erik De Boer, who also worked on Life of Pi.

Bong is full of praise for the de­tails in­volved in the cre­ation of 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,” he says. “Erik re­ally re­frained from mak­ing the char­ac­ter look like a Dis­ney car­toon.”

When Mi­rando re­calls the an­i­mals, the com­pany runs into prob­lems. Mija doesn’t want to let Okja go and joins forces with a group of well-in­ten­tioned but bum­bling an­i­mal-rights ac­tivists played by Paul Dano, Lily Collins and Steven Yeun. They be­lieve the cor­po­ra­tion is ex­ploit­ing an­i­mals and food for its own ends, and un­cover the poor way in which it treats the an­i­mals.

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

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

The film is not try­ing to con­vert the au­di­ence to ve­g­an­ism, but it does aim to raise aware­ness of some ob­jec­tion­able as­pects of cor­po­rate be­hav­iour.

“I’m not veg­e­tar­ian, but it cer­tainly talked to me about the com­plex­ity of the is­sues sur­round­ing the food in­dus­try,” says for­mer The Walk­ing Dead star Yeun. How best to feed more than seven bil­lion peo­ple is a com­plex ques­tion and one that does not have easy an­swers. 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 I’m not veg­e­tar­ian, but it cer­tainly talked to me about the com­plex­ity of the is­sues sur­round­ing the food in­dus­try Steven Yeun ac­tor 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 while writ­ing Okja, and was shaken by how even an or­gan­i­cally reared 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 it is, first and fore­most, a movie de­signed to en­ter­tain and make us laugh. There is a host of ec­cen­tric sup­port­ing char­ac­ters, not least Dr Johnny Wil­cox, a zo­ol­o­gist who is the public face of the Mi­rando Cor­po­ra­tion.

The role is played by Jake Gyl­len­haal, sport­ing a furry mous­tache and long shorts. He speaks in a high- pitched 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,” he says. “We all seem to do it, in one way or an­other, and th­ese bad per­for­mances just be­come mag­ni­fied when they are tele­vi­sion.”

He sees Dr 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.”

is now avail­able on Net­flix

Courtesy Net­flix

Tilda Swin­ton and Bong Joon-ho on the set of Okja. On the cover, Swin­ton with Ahn Seo-hyun in the film.

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