From E.T. and The BFG to The Neverending Story and Babe, the history of cinema is filled with many magical tales of humans forming unlikely friendships with their fellow creatures. Now, Okja, a new Netflix-backed film from celebrated Korean director Bong Joon-ho, has arrived to offer a brilliant, 21st-century take on the theme. The film begins in the glitzy headquarters of the Mirando Corporation, a food production giant helmed by a cloyingly girlish woman named Lucy Mirando (a brace-toothed Tilda Swinton). The latest in a line of corrupt heirs to the dynasty, Mirando Jr. announces to a journalist-packed room that she has discovered a “revolution in the livestock industry”: a synthesis of science and nature dubbed the "super pig", which will prove to be the company’s most environmentally friendly endeavour yet. A number of these creatures – a sort of hippo-pig hybrid, with floppy, elephant ears – have been shipped to rural farmers around the globe in an attempt to see which form of rearing will produce the most impressive, wholesome results. The farmers’ efforts, Mirando Jr. decrees, will be documented and judged by TV zoologist Dr. Johnny (played to maniacal, strung-out perfection by Jake Gyllenhaal) and the results will be announced in 10 years' time in New York.
Fast-forward a decade and the camera pans across an entirely different scene: the lush mountains of South Korea, where a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) and her super pig, Okja, frolic blissfully among the forests. Okja was presented to Mija’s grandfather, who has raised the child and the super pig side by side, never letting on to his sparky granddaughter that her beloved companion’s fate lies in the hands of the Mirando Corporation, who will shortly come to take her away. The rest of the film plays out as an absurd, action-filled comedy – punctuated by dark, Roald Dahlian overtones of animal cruelty and scientific ethics – as Mija sets out to rescue Okja from the slaughterhouse, finding friends among guerrilla activists, the Animal Liberation Front (headed by a hilariously pacifistic Paul Dano) along the way.
While the stellar cast provides a deliciously diverse array of bizarre characters, it is 13-year-old Ahn who steals the show; her face conveys myriad emotions that will melt even the coldest of hearts, while her unwavering determination will have you cheering in your seat and renouncing bacon forever. The actress has been frequenting South Korean cinema and TV screens since the age of three, but with Okja she proves herself a talent to be reckoned with on a global scale. Here, as the film arrives on Netflix, we catch up with the perceptive young star to discover more about filming with a CGI co-star and her favourite onscreen heroine.
How did you become involved with the film? What was the audition process like?
It wasn't really a typical audition process. I'd just done a TV drama at the time and I was planning to take a break from acting, as I’d been doing it for 10 years, but then me and my father found out about the open casting for Okja so we decided that we'd go and meet the famous director Bong! We sent an email and almost two months later we got a response asking us to visit his office. So we went along, and I felt that from the beginning he treated me like Mija. He talked about Okja a lot – the character, not the film. He only mentioned the film a few months later, after we'd met several times and chatted lots.
What were your first impressions when you read the script?
Director Bong gave me the script and told me to take a month to read it and decide if I wanted the part. I think he meant for me to spend the whole month reading it once, but it was so interesting that I read it 20 times! It went into such tiny details that really gave you a feeling for the characters and for his vision. The story and Mija were both so unique. I spent a lot of time thinking about her and her relationship with Okja and, once the month was up, I talked to director Bong about it and he liked my ideas and that was it!
Do you think there are similarities between you and Mija?
Yes, lots. Mija isn't your typical girly girl, and nor am I. When she sets her mind on something, she has to see it through to the end. She's not a talker, she's a doer – she has to fight for justice, and to protect what is hers. Those kind of aspects are very similar to me.
What was Bong’s directing style like?
Bong has a very detailed, very particular empathy for his actors, which allows us to express ourselves to our maximum potential. He sets a safe boundary and then allows us to be free within it, which helps immensely. It's a bit like choosing from a drinks menu: it's easier to pick something when someone suggests choosing something from the juices, rather than saying, ‘Let's pick anything from everything’.
What was it like working with CGI? How long did it take you to get used to it?
There was a stuffy [stuffed puppet] on set that was the general shape of what Okja was going to look like and inside was a performer named Steve, who was controlling it. I very quickly formed a connection with Steve – he was really nice to me and we became really close. I can't really pinpoint how long it took for it to happen but as I became Mija, Steve and the stuffy became Okja.
Which was your favourite scene to shoot?
There's a scene when Mija’s taking a nap on Okja’s belly – in the forest, in the sunshine – and that was the most memorable for me. It's very simple – we’re not talking; the action is just that we're taking a nap, and then we walk off together. When I watched it on the monitors after shooting it, I saw that our close connection was really apparent. It was a moment of enlightenment for me: realising the natural relationship between the two of us. I have a Jack Russell Terrier called Rang and I couldn't visit him during filming so I think I transferred my feelings to Okja, which showed!
Mija is a very strong character for young girls to look up to. Who is your favourite heroine on film?
I love Moana from the new Disney film. She departs for an adventure on her own and although there are hardships she encounters along the way, she battles through them and achieves her goal. She's similar to Mija in that way: they're both young female characters with great strength and determination.
Okja is on Netflix now.