Available to watch on Netflix. In fact, exclusively available to watch on Netflix – this film is already infamous for getting booed at Cannes, following Netflix’s decision not to have it distributed in cinemas worldwide, provoking controversy amongst the international filmmaking elite. They’re quite rightly worried about cinema’s decline as a medium: the latest projections have forecast that Netflix and Amazon Prime will overtake UK cinema box office spending by 2020, for instance. The reasons for this are manifold and too detailed to go into here, but ticket price inflation (a dozen British pounds I paid to see the mediocre Wonder Woman recently) and the distances required to travel to see films in a theatrical setting, with no guarantee of their quality, seems to me of foremost importance, and could very well lead to the cinema becoming a rarified spectacle in the near future, reserved for special occasions much like the theatre. The monthly fee for Netflix is minimal in comparison, and the risk of expending time and money on a bad film simply doesn’t exist: if it sucks, you just turn it off and move on to something else, simple as, which is a power the cinema seat will never be able to bestow.
Even more importantly, Netflix are taking enormous risks with their homegrown projects, making, for instance, Disney’s cynical ploy of rehashing their old stock into ‘live action’ CGI-fests appear exceptionally unimaginative and even desperate by comparison – and let’s not forget the relentless chains of superhero ‘cinematic universes’ that are scripted and directed with a passion closely approximating to zero. As a film fan, looking up the films at your local Odeon can fill you with despair, whereas reading about the future of Netflix projects is enticing – the company’s attracting immensely talented directors to make original works, doubtless drawn to the streaming service’s instant audience of 100 million subscribers, and also Netflix’s laudable decision not to interfere in the creative production of their visions. They trust the talent they’ve hired and let them get on with it. Why on earth would you want to make another film for the Weinsteins, producers who will constantly try to interfere in the creative process and have a hack at the final cut for the sake of ‘commercial viability’, when Netflix can and will allow a free handle on the reins?
Stop booing everyone, and start applauding the fact that a company is using its profits to take risks and release otherwise unreleasable novelties such as the multilingual Okja, a film by the incredibly talented South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Before this, his last project was the terrific apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer, which didn’t even get released in the UK by the Weinsteins, who couldn’t figure out a marketing strategy despite its having a cast that contained Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and John Hurt. Go figure why Joon-ho’s chosen to move to Netflix with this one.
A good story is a good story, no matter the medium. And Okja has all the makings of one. It’s a simple tale at heart, about a Korean girl called Mija (13 year-old Ahn Seo-hyun, tough and likeable) whose best friend is the genetically modified ‘superpig’ of the title. After an idyllic start (reminiscent of My Neighbour Totoro), she must chase Okja first across Seoul and then across America after the pig’s stolen from her by the shady Mirando Corporation, who are the company that crafted it in a laboratory in the first place, and who now plan to turn it into meat. Mija’s aided in her rescue mission by the Animal Liberation Front, a group of vegan terrorists led by Paul Dano (channeling a portion of his sanctimonious elan from There Will Be Blood, I think), who are determined to expose Mirando Corporation’s abuse and cruel slaughter of animals.
What makes this film interesting is that Mirando Corporation’s CEO, Lucy, rather than being depicted as a single-mindedly villainous entity, is actually concerned with softening her image and appearing as a do-gooder, in response to the hyper-capitalist drives of the company’s previous CEOs, her father and sister, who tarnished its reputation forever by dumping chemicals and causing a lake to ‘explode’. Lucy Mirando and her sister, Nancy, are played by Tilda Swinton (so memorably perverse in Snowpiercer), and she works very hard, and very admirably, to show the human failings at the heart of capitalism. Yes, Lucy is intending to slaughter all of the superpigs that she has cynically harvested, but with the good intention of using the meat to help feed millions of starving people around the world. It is up to you to decide whether her intentions are genuinely altruistic – Swinton gives you several clues, but the ambiguity is clearly an important part of the film, making it a more intriguing ride than just a bland ‘corporations are bad’ morality tale.
Also very sly is how the satire in this film, ably handled by Joon-ho and his cast, attacks not just the hypocrisies of the Mirando Corporation, which are obvious, but also the leftist insurgency of the Animal Liberation Front, whose mantras about not harming animals or people seem to dissolve quite quickly before the film’s end. This displays a South Park-level of appreciation that satire should tackle hypocrisy wherever it’s to be found, both on the left and on the right, regardless of the political bias of its writers. Organisations often have inbuilt double standards and moronic infighting, which dilute their impact considerably, and Okja’s beauty is of showing a 13 year-old girl, whose simple care in the world is to love her best friend, caught between the bureaucratic stupidities of two unwieldy and opposing enterprises.
On a more surface level of enjoyment, it must be said that Okja has tremendously filmed action sequences, including most especially a road chase through Seoul that’s far more exhilarating than any I’ve seen in the Fast and the Furious series. Its photography in the early sequences, of Mija and Okja roaming across the farmland and mountains of South Korea, is so stunning that, yes, you do rather wish you could’ve seen it on a big screen.
There are other reservations to be had: Jake Gyllenhaal hams it up too much as a fading alcoholic TV presenter, and although it looks like he’s having more fun than he’s had onscreen for years, his bug-eyed approach is good only for a few light chuckles, and it doesn’t justify his tendency to hog the screen.
But overall it’s a worthy experience that you will want to watch again very soon after it’s finished. And of course, on Netflix you can!