Small is beautiful

Stoke Newington hosts an enjoyable alternative to the traditional literary festival.

As the sprawling Hay Festival rumbled to its close in far-away Wales, the second Stoke Newington Literary Festival offered London book lovers something a little less star-studded, and a lot closer to home. Though with a line-up including Steven Berkoff, Stewart Lee, Dan Cruickshank, Jon Ronson, Kate Summerscale, Orange Prize-winner Linda Grant, and with the critic Alex Clark acting as peripatetic literary host, it was hardly a mothers' meeting. (Not that such gender-specific rendezvous take place in Stoke Newington these days.)

Organiser and local resident Liz Vater has a background in PR, and her skills in this field proved invaluable when, last year, on little time and less money, she put together 2010's impressive debut.

N16 is exactly the kind of arty middle-class locale that can sustain a festival of this kind. It mirrors Hay (and many others) in its mix of literature, history, children's events, social issues via recent writing and comedy.

It also employs a wide variety of venues: from the rather impressive Town Hall, replete with the world's second-largest glitter ball (the world's largest is currently stationed in Germany), to The Jolly Butchers pub and the Mascara Bar in Stamford Hill.

This mixture, and the festival's focus on local history - Poe, Wollstonecraft and Defoe, the area's three most famous literary residents, all featured across the weekend, most notably when Stephen Berkoff unveiled a bust of Poe at the site of the author's old school - create a homespun community feel, which is by no means a bad thing. Rather it's relaxing and friendly, with no awe-fuelled distance between reader and audience, and there is a strong sense of place.

Being a smaller, less commercial affair (after covering costs, the festival donates profits to literacy projects in Hackney) there is also more time and space for new writers. Thus on Saturday, Alex Clark was to be found in the tiled subterranean room of the Three Crowns pub, The Drop, talking to debut novelists - Sarah Winman (When God Was a Rabbit), Naomi Wood (The Godless Boys) and Sam Leith (The Coincidence Engine); and on Sunday evening the same venue provided the setting for a rather more raucous affair hosted by novelist, Nikesh Shukla.

Declaring he wanted to make the event a bit more "Glastonbury main stage", the ever-boisterous Shukla insisted all the young authors be summoned to the stage by the crowd chanting their names. The packed room kindly obliged for authors Evie Wyld (her debut, After the Fire a Still Small Voice won the Betty Trask award), Gavin James Bower, Shukla himself, Lee Rourke and Niven Govinden, author of two novels, but increasingly a prolific short story writer - he read his story, "Nightwalk", which was broadcast over the weekend on Radio 3, and is currently on the shortlist for the Bristol Short Story Prize for the tale, "Marseille Tip".

The sense of good entertainment via good writing was further emphasised by poet Tim Wells's concept of featuring short sets of poetry at the start of events; both to warm up the crowd and remind attendees that verse can by funny, gripping, seriously entertaining and, most crucially, accessible. Poets thrust into this brief spotlight included: Ashna Sarkar, Heather Phillipson, Jack Underwood, and Simon Barraclough.

Wells also took part in the last event of the festival: "Ska & Reggae in Stoke Newington". And so it was that under the unerring glare of the world's second-largest glitter ball, the panel - which featured the legendary owner of The Four Aces Club in Dalston, Newton Dunbar, and guitarist from The Slits, Viv Albertine - discussed why music from one small island had such a huge impact on London culture in the seventies and beyond. Albertine recalling that John Lydon and his thuggish north London mates would go along to another local reggae club, Phebes, and dance the night away.

From Gothic horror stories to true Victorian crime, reggae to Dr Seuss, the best new poetry to the new hopefuls of English fiction, this festival is more low-key but in many ways more enjoyable version of its blockbusting cousins. Long may it continue.

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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