There is a war raging over the future of film. It’s not the first. There have been others at the advent of sound, color, television, and digital cameras. Each time an alarm was sounded by those who guard the old ways, declaring film would be ruined with this new gimmick.
Netflix is at the center of this latest battle, because it dares to premiere movies on its streaming service, ignoring decades of theatrical release tradition. This spurred heated debate at the Cannes Film Festival, where people booed the Netflix banner as it rolled out before their premiere of the fantasy-drama Okja. The controversy burbles forth in think pieces about the importance of the movie house to the experience of cinema, and counterarguments about the access Netflix offers movie lovers who don’t have the benefit of a dedicated art house near them. While I understand the concerns of those fretting over the rise of Netflix, I look to their latest, a Bong Joon Ho movie that’s gleefully outrageous, boasting big stars and uncanny visual effects, and can’t help but celebrate the latest ruination of cinema. In a year where studio tent poles have offered us such big budgeted but bland bombs as Ghost In the Shell, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and The Mummy, it feels like a miracle to find a movie as weird and lushly budgeted as Okja.
Now, admittedly, this quirky adventure is said to cost around $50 million, so about half to a third of its big screen competitors. But mid-budget adventure movies like these are a rarity in Hollywood, where costly stars and visual effects are counted on far more than an intriguing story or compelling characters. But Netflix, with its growing bramble of original programming, is willing to take a risk. And with Okja, the audience wins.
Written by Bong Joon Ho and Jon Ronson, Okja begins with a flourish of a chipper and pastel pink CEO who’s promising a newly discovered breed of “super pigs” that will be the future in food. Through glinting braces, a whimsical lisp, and a jarringly broad smile, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) promises the world will be saved from starvation by her
publicity stunt initiative to grow the best super pig. She sends off piglets to far-flung farmers around the world, then gives them ten years to mature. In that time, Okja becomes the pride of the litter, having grown big and healthy in the untamed forests of South Korea, cared for by young and spirited Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her old-fashioned grandfather.
Theirs is a simple life. Mija hunts and gathers in the woods for fish and fruits to feed them all. Their house is more a hut, and their refrigerator, broken and outdoors, has become a place to store stinky shoes, while her grandfather’s coveted bottles of soju hide beneath the house’s floorboards as if they are smuggled treasure. Yet, spending her days gathering and gallivanting with her beloved super pig at her side under sun-dappled paths and glistening waterfalls, what more could a girl ask for?
Far from the fast-paced metropolises of the motor-mouthed Mirando, Mija is content. So much so that when time comes to give Ojka back to the corporation that plans to butcher her, the girl begs her grandfather to reject the hefty payout so the super pig can be saved, kept as part of their unconventional but happy family. But Mija’s peaceful plans are shattered when bombastic TV personality turned harried has-been Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) scrambles up to her mountain-top home, prods her friend for the cameras, and rips Okja out of her life.
This will not stand. And so, this tenacious 14-year-old straps on a fannypack of essentials, and races to Seoul to stop Okja from being flown to New York City for a massive celebration that will end in the super pig’s execution. In her journey, Mija meets a band of painfully hipster animal rights activists, led by a perfectly twee Paul Dano. Dedicated to bringing down Mirando for their animal abuse, they join forces with the determined girl, who cares nothing for their cause and only for her threatened friend.
The story unfolds like a modern fairy-tale, with wicked witches (the Mirando twins, both profit-driven, one less overtly sinister seeming), quest-hungry knights (or overeager activists), a mystical beast (Okja, natch), and at its center a self-rescuing princess who has no patience for all their games. Mija’s goal is just to return to the life she once knew. But after seeing the horrible truths that lie behind the glossy walls of Mirando, both she and Okja learn some brutal lessons, leading to a winsome but bittersweet ending.
The idyllic atmosphere of the opening might suggest Okja is a movie appropriate for kids. But the vague threat of butchering soon becomes graphic. Things turn sinister when Dr. Johnny—once a beloved animal show host in the vein of The Crocodile Hunter’s Steve Irwin—lets loose his rage over being outshone by a beast, by abusing Okja. First, he subjects her to forced breeding with a massive and raging male super pig. (The footage is so disturbing that one spying activist howls for the sound to be muted from the feed.) Then, he uses special tools to sample Okja’s meat while she lives, and wails in pain. Try to imagine a studio making this movie.
Netflix has offered Bong a place to make a monster movie, where the monster is man. And along the way, he smashes to bits the expectations constructed by decades of four-quadrant American-made action-adventures. Okja centers on a child, but not on an English-speaking American moppet with big blue eyes and a fragile smile, on a Korean-speaking farm girl with a steely gaze and no patience for playing to adults’ sympathies. Her disinterest in being charming or easily accessible (through cuteness or English-speaking) makes Mija a standout female character in American cinema. (Albeit, Okja is an American/South Korean co-production.) Then, Bong cast the biggest stars to play silly yet vicious villains, who look comical but commit truly stomach-churning acts. Then, he delivers a finale that’s set in an actual abattoir, where super pigs like Okja are cut to ribbons left and right by bored technicians. This is a movie that risks losing its audience at many turns while bounding through dizzying tone shifts. And this is a key part of what makes Okja so exceptional.
Too often when you go to see a movie, you anticipate a formula. Perhaps there will be some subversions and shake-ups. But Hollywood makes much of its money by playing to audience expectation. Too few dare to rock the boat. But Netflix, with its lower overhead and widely accessible platform, can dare to make a movie that’s an outright boat-rocker. Because Okja is playing primarily to small screens, Netflix probably could have gotten away with turning in a CGI creature a hair more realistic than the sky-surfing beasts of Sharknado. Audiences would have expected little more. But instead, they gave us Okja, whose animation is an astonishing accomplishment in every frame.
There’s plenty of joys to find in this surprisingly dark adventure. The scowling ingenue An is a petite powerhouse, who wins our hearts specifically because she gives no fucks, rejecting adult bullshit and slapping down promotional signs with all the fury you’d expect from a child robbed of her pet/best friend. Swinton and Gyllenhaal revel in playing not only to the rafters, but to the bogeda down the block, and the rundown train yard blocks beyond. And the story—with its wacky turns, wild characters, and big bleeding heart—is enrapturing even at its wonkiest. But Okja herself is its greatest wonder.
Often CGI characters lack a sense of weight. But bounding through brusque brush, racing over slippery rocks or diving into a fish-filled pond, the super pig’s flesh bounces, her feet thump, her ears flap. In motion, she is marvelous. Yet still, she is breathtaking. In one scene reminiscent of Dr. Alan Grant resting on the heaving chest of a dinosaur in Jurassic Park, a gobsmacked Dr. Johnny runs his hand over Okja’s thickly textured and hair-bristled hide. And it looks so photo-real I had to remind myself it isn’t. It can’t be. This is fantasy. And that moment is transcendent, when you have to remind yourself you’re watching a movie. You don’t need a movie theater for it.
Ultimately, Okja offers escapism with a generous dose of politics that makes it fascinating, funky, and fabulous. It’s not for all ages. It’s not for everyone. But to those craving something strange and daring, Okja is a gamble worth taking.
Okja opens June 28th in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and nationwide on Netflix.