The fantasy epic, directed by South Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho, could be the streaming services first big splash in original cinema
If Netflixs foray into original television content has been one of the great, industry-shaking developments of the past decade, the streaming services attempts at evergreen feature films have been decidedly less successful. Though the site has flourished with original documentaries (13th; What Happened, Miss Simone?; and Get Me Roger Stone are just three critically lauded examples), big-budget features such as David Michds War Machine and Yuen Woo-Pings Crouching Tiger sequel have made less of a splash.
That might change with The Host director Bong Joon-Hos latest picture, a strange, sweeping cautionary tale of late-capitalist greed called Okja, available on Netflix worldwide.
The title of the film is the name of its semi-anthropomorphic, genetically engineered Superpig, several of which have been created by the Mirando Corporation to be bred, commodified and slaughtered for consumption. The Superpig, a simpler name for what looks like the lovechild of an elephant and a dugong, is being raised in the South Korean countryside with a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) who, in the tradition of films such as Pans Labyrinth and Miyazakis My Neighbor Totoro, strikes up a touching friendship with the gentle giant.
But all of this is part of a larger, more sinister undertaking to bring harvest to the world, as Tilda Swintons cunning, brace-toothed CEO announces, having taken the reins at her familys multinational agrochemical firm. Working with her is Johnny Wilcox, a debauched TV zoologist played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who aids Mirandos scheme by filming highly editorialized specials about the Superpigs wholesome upbringing.
Dr Johnny and Swintons Lucy Mirando plan to ship the best and brightest of their mutant swine back to the companys headquarters in Manhattan, where theyll be unveiled to the world and then repackaged as beef jerky, bacon and hot dogs as edible as apple pie. Fighting to expose the companys cruel practices is a team of young bandits known as the Animal Liberation Front, headed by Paul Danos Jay and Lily Collins Red, who despite a language barrier team up with Mija to save Okja from her inevitable end: the slaughterhouse.
Bongs film is indeed as weird as the sum of its parts crammed in less than two hours is a bonkers scene with projectile excrement, Gyllenhaal talking almost exclusively in a drunken, high-pitched squeal, a getaway pig-napping and heavy satire of both the heartless corporatists and the beleaguered activists but its last 20 minutes are as affecting as anything Ive seen in film this year.
Audiences at this years Cannes film festival, in part, seemed to agree. When Okja premiered there last month it was met with both admiration and rancor, the former directed at the film for its warmth and visual splendor, the latter at the Netflix logo that appeared in the title cards, prompting boos from the caustic French crowd. Cannes, like other film festivals, has been slow to embrace the advent of streaming services, which tend to eschew theatrical releases and opt instead for online debuts.
Okja written by Bong and journalist/author Jon Ronson, whose last film credit was the delightfully strange 2014 film Frank will subvert this process just slightly, set to open on 28 June, the day of its streaming release, in just three US theaters, qualifying the film for awards season contention (Netflix and its counterpart Amazon have not been shy about gunning for Oscars, both companies having earned their first ever wins at last years ceremony).
In France, though, where movies can only appear online 36 months after being released theatrically, such a rollout is outlawed and, in the eyes of traditionalist cinephiles, uncouth. Even the National Federation of French Cinemas, in protecting the interests of film exhibitors, went as far to say that online-only distribution would call into question their nature as a cinematographic work, a stance thats as anachronistic as it is smug.
But with Okja, Bong Joon-ho was less concerned with these rituals which have the ultimate effect of arbitrarily ascribing value to some films and not others than with having complete creative control over the project, which Netflix famously affords.
Theres no mechanism to make a movie like Okja today outside of what were doing, Ted Sarandos, Netflixs chief content officer, told the Telegraph. No studio would take that risk on a Korean director on a film that barely has any English language in it. And in my opinion while that may sound risky, putting it in the hands of director Bong? Not very risky at all.
That obeisance to film-makers hasnt yet landed the streaming service a major feature, but Okja is as good an advertisement as any for the benefits of total directorial freedom, helping to position Netflix as a go-to destination, and financial safety net, for directors looking to to make films that wouldnt otherwise find a home. In turn, directors such as Bong have extolled the virtues of that autonomy. If you want to make something strange, he told the Guardian, is a good place to go.