With levitating migrants and genetically-engineered giant pigs, two films in competition at Cannes Film Festival 2017 fight cross-border corruption and violence. Looking for fresh ways to raise social awareness, they mix genres to the point of becoming mutants.
South Korean Okja could be described as an anticorporate animal-rights children’s horror comedy. Hungarian Jupiter’s Moon (Jupiter holdja) can be labeled a realist sci-fi drama about spirituality during a refugee crisis. The results are flawed, but occasionally compelling.
Kornél Mundruczo’s Jupiter’s Moon begins at the Serbian-Hungarian border, with Syrian refugees under fire from Hungarian patrol. Boats turn over. People drown. Men fleeing into the woods are shot in the back. Then the gritty realist drama turns magical as one of them, Aryan (Zsombor Jéger), begins to rise above ground, bubbles of his blood floating around, as if enclosed in a space of no-gravity.
Mundruczo used magic realism effectively in White God, a tale of mongrel uprising against humans that won an Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2014. But passive Aryan lacks the drive of a rebel pack bent on revenge. An outlaw on the run, he is at the mercy of others. Dr. Stern (Merab Ninidze), a disgraced surgeon and a people smuggler, takes him from the refugee camp to use as a con man’s stunt. The policeman who wounded him (György Cserhalmi as László) follows, intent of finishing the job.
As Aryan performs tricks to extract fees from wealthy patients, more and more people take him for an angel. Amid expertly filmed car chases, police raids, and confusing turns of plot, Aryan’s gift leads Stern to redemption and hope. But nods to Christian faith dilute the grim picture of migrant life in the film. As dead bodies pile up, God and sacrifice seem inadequate response to refugee suffering. Anger seems more appropriate than turning the other cheek.
South Korean teen Mija displays plenty of anger as she fights to save her beloved giant pig Okja from an American food tech company in Bong John-ho’s CGI extravaganza. The Mirando (rhymes with Monsanto) Corporation placed the “super-piglet” in her grandfather’s Korean mountaintop home, to grow for ten years, then be taken to New York to compete against 26 other superpigs, then to be carved up for hot dogs and bacon. Mija and Okja grow up together in a primeval verdant paradise, their innocent play appropriate for a preteen audience.
When the time is up and Okja is gone, Mija follows. Here, the film turns to broad comedy, targeting both sides of the animal rides divide. Jake Gyllenhaal is barely recognizable as an icky animal TV show host who comes to collect Okja. Tilda Swinton is doubly funny as twin corporate CEOs: the batty one in pink who places the piglets, and the fiendish one with a bad haircut who later sends the grown superpigs to the slaughter.
The Animal Liberation Front’s Okja rescue attempts, with Mija in tow, allow for spectacular truck chases and supermarket escapes, worthy of Bong’s earlier Snowpiercer. Still, they recruit Okja for some perilous undercover work. And their appreciation of all life goes a bit too far: one Of them can’t make himself swallow a single organic tomato.
When Okja arrives in New York, the real horror begins. Okja’s portly, soft body is made to suffer in a multitude of ways: through forced intercourse, tissue extraction, and more. The climactic slaughterhouse scene reaches beyond the urgency of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. Carcasses hang from the ceiling. Hundreds of superpigs wait helplessly to die in a monstrous carving machine.
By the end of it, Mija leaves not a slaughterhouse but a superpig concentration camp. The scene knocks the viewers completely out of their comfort zone; it’s the most effective moment in the film. It’s also not the one to show your preteen (imagine the nightmares!), making it impossible to recommend the entire film to an audience of any age.
In addition to crossing genre borders, at Cannes Okja marked another divide: the analog and digital way of movie making and distribution. At the first Okja press screening, some journalists booed the Netflix logo and others applauded. French movie theater owners objected to the inclusion of the film in the Cannes competition lineup because it will not come out in French theaters. Netflix produced the film and will only release it online.
In response, Cannes organizers declared that in the future only films set for theatrical releases will be allowed in competition. But this restriction might not stand up to realities of film financing, given that Netflix and Amazon offer resources many traditional film studios are unwilling to provide. Even traditionalists like Mundruczo, who filmed Jupiter’s Moon mostly in 35mm and used as little CG as possible, may have to turn to digital distribution in time.