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How Okja combines two Netflix trends to make the ultimate vegetarian film

Why the superpig flick is the perfect fit for Netflix.

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja – a film about a young girl and her best friend, a genetically modified pig bred for its meat – was met with controversy when it premiered at Cannes this year. It was booed after technical problems affected its screening, but the real outrage was over whether Netflix, as a home video streaming service, should be allowed to screen at a prestigious film festival at all. Shortly after two Netflix films were accepted by the festival, the board suddenly changed their selection rules to prevent a “new operator” hindering the festival’s “support of the traditional mode of exhibition of cinema in France and in the world.” But whether you balk at the thought of popular films never getting a proper theatrical release, Okja is the perfect fit for Netflix.

Netflix loves animals. Don’t believe me? Try checking out the animal-specific genre the streaming service has hidden in its system. There, you’ll find all manner of kid-befriends-animal movies. Horse movies (from Storm Rider to Gift Horse to, yes, Rodeo & Juliet) seem particularly popular of late on the US version of the site. There, too, are Paulie and Lassie, but if those don’t float your boat, what about Air Bud? Netlix carries all five (yes, five!) films that involve a physically gifted dog turn his paws to increasingly unlikely sports – descriptions include: The prolifically athletic pooch tries his paw at yet another sport… and finds himself framed for robbery!

There are classics there, too: Charlotte’s Web, Chicken Run, Babe. The kinds of films that have inspired generations of meat-eating kids to embrace vegetarianism well into adulthood. Take 1995’s Babe (based on Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig): James Cromwell, who played the film’s kindly farmer, was so moved by the animals on set that he became a hardcore vegan after some years as a casual vegetarian while, the Vegetarian Times reported that after the film’s release, sales of pork had significantly dropped. So, too are there many accounts of Charlotte’s Web turning readers and audiences vegetarian.

Okja slots neatly into that mix. We see 14-year-old Mija and Okja play together in idyllic rural Korea, where Okja fishes, gathers fruit and, of course, protects her human pal. We awwww as Okja spoons Mija to sleep, laugh as Mija gently encoruages Okja to release explosive poos, gasp as Okja saves Mija from life-threatening dangers. We are thrilled as villains and heroes alike chase the superpig  through the rabbit warrens of Seoul’s  underground shopping malls. But Okja is half save-the-superpig family-friendly romp, and half horrifying meat industry satire.

Netflix is also home to a thriving subgenre of films aimed at adults that expose the dark side of meat-eating. Documentaries like Blackfish, The Cove, Cowspiracy, and Food Inc are all available to stream on the service, and have developed a cult following as a result. All expose the systematic horrors at the heart of human relationships with animals: the extreme cruelty of the industrialised meat industry, or the corruption that reaches even the highest levels of government when big corporations stand to profit from animal mistreatment. Many end up as intimate portraits of corporate hypocrisy – a thread that runs throughout Okja.

Okja is just as concerned with this aspect of human-animal relations as it is with zooming in on the sad eyes of the superpig herself. It opens with a speech from Lucy Mirando (a blonde Tilda Swinton in girlish braces), the CEO of the “Mirando Corporation”, who is trying to change the face of a toxic company. She talks of “reclaiming” the space of her factory “now the rotten CEOs are gone”, ties her company mission (selling meat?) to the problem of global hunger, and repeatedly uses vague terms like “natural” and “traditional”. “It's Mirando’s new era with me,” she says warmly, “and with new core values: environment and life.”

When Okja escapes the Mirando Corporation’s clutches and runs riot in Seoul, Okja satirises how seriously corporations take their PR with a shot modelled on the Osama Bin Laden “Situation Room” photograph. The funniest dialogue in the movie comes from the following crisis meeting, where Lucy Mirando wrings her hands over the state of the company, defending her decision to attend a course called “Unleash Your Calling” (“at a highly-respected institute for the advancement of human potential where many a forward-looking CEO go!”), criticising her sister for dumping toxic waste in “Moose Lake” with (“the only lake ever to explode –  well done, Nancy”), and quoting decade-old Slate thinkpieces about her brand (“I mean, these are journalists that never write about pigs!”) Her obsession with insincere branding – “I was visualizing ways of turning the most hated agrochemical company in the world into the most likable miracle pig-rearing company!” – feels grimly familiar.

But the most searing parallels with real-life animal cruelty come in the film’s final 20 minutes, set at the superpig superslaughterhouse. We see Okja’s ovine cousins crowded in a concentration camp-esque paddock, before being shot with a bolt gun, decapitated, strung from the ceiling and sliced into pieces. It’s bloody and haunting – and has caused some controversy thanks to unsuspecting parents sitting down to watch Okja with their young children.

But we have seen this before. Really, the most fruitful comparison is for Okja is Watership Down: cute animals, a less-than-subtle message about the horrors of human evil and our impact on the natural world, the screams of traumatised children echoing in the distance. And what scarring children’s classic is Netflix remaking in the very near future? Watership Down. So next time you switch on the streaming service, make sure you spit out the sausages first.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Warner Bros
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Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.

“Hey!”

Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.

“S’grounded!”

Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.

“Wha’??”

Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.