Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

The Gatekeepers. Selected cinemas, nationwide. Released 12 April.

The Gatekeepers is an intimate, interview-style documentary featuring six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service agency. Directed by Dror Moreh, it focuses on the personal experiences of men at the forefront of the Six Day War. The remarkable openness of the participating interviewees has received a great deal of interest. Discussing the successes and mistakes of their time during the Occupation, they shed light on the wider controversy surrounding the war.

Opera

The English National Opera: The Sunken Garden. Barbican Centre, London EC2Y 8DS. 12 – 20 April.

Tonight, The Barbican will host the world premiere of The Sunken Garden. Directed by composer and director Michel van der Aa, with a libretto written by author David Mitchell, whose novel Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the Booker prize, The Sunken Garden includes both 2D and 3D film. Focusing on the disappearance of a software engineer and the people who try to find him, it describes itself as an all new “occult mystery” film-opera.

Exhibition

Tell Me Whom You Haunt: Marcel Duchamp and the Contemporary Readymade. Blain Southern Gallery, Hanover Square, London W1S 1BP1. April – 18 May.

Tell Me Whom You Haunt places ten leading contemporary artists in dialogue with existing pieces by Marcel Duchamp, to explore the idea that found or ‘readymade’ objects lose their previous signification when re-contextualised. The exhibition includes responses from contemporary artists such as Olaf Nicolai, Robert Kusmirowski and Nasan Tur, all of whom play with the idea of ‘hauntings’ and the ways in which memory manifests itself.

Concert

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Colston Hall, Bristol, BS1 5AR. Thurs 18 April.

On Thursday, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra will perform a wordless ‘night at the opera’, conducted by Andrew Litton, with Vadim Gluzman as lead violinist. It will include pieces from Korngold, Bruch, Wagner and R Strauss. To supplement this exciting concert, Bristol ensemble conductor Jonathan James will be giving a talk on Saturday 13th April. Discussing the inferences and themes behind each piece, he will historically and socially contextualise the music to instil a new resonance to the performance. His talk will also be at Colston Hall.

Theatre

Fences. Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge CB2 3PJ. 15 – 20 April.

August Wilson's 1987 drama Fences is arguably one of the most famous American plays of the 20th century.  Set in 1957, between the Korean and Vietnam wars, it follows the life of Troy Maxson – played by Lenny Henry, a once gifted athlete whose job as a garbage collector now leaves him resentful and embittered. This new version, directed by Paulette Randall, has received high praise from critics including Lyn Gardner. Writing in the Guardian, she describes the portrayal of Maxson as “so vivid that you can't help being gripped by this story of a man who may have thrived, but who is fenced in by the era into which he was born.”    

Director of The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh, at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images
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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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