‘Okja’: a not-so-little piggy goes to Netflix
What weighs 4,000 pounds and is currently rampaging across your On Demand menu?
That would be Netflix’s ambitions for global entertainment industry conquest.
Oh, also it’s “Okja.”
What’s “Okja”? It’s the movie you should really be watching this weekend, the latest jaw-dropping piece of exuberant, uncategorizable dystopian satire from Bong Joon Ho, whom we last encountered putting the remnants of humanity on a high-speed train in “Snowpiercer” (2013).
No one, but no one, makes movies like Bong, a South Korean master who combines baroque concepts, epic visuals, international casts, and a sense of humor that can make you laugh out loud in the middle of the darkest doings. “Memories of Murder” (2003) was a serial-killer detective flick that unraveled from deadpan entropy; “The Host” (2006) was a Godzilla movie that made a left turn into political parody and family slapstick. “Snowpiercer” was a violent social allegory enlivened by speed, humor, and audacity.
“Okja” is typically atypical fare for this director, a day-after-tomorrow parable about a little girl (An Seo Hyun) and her giant mutant pig named Okja. Call it “Charlotte’s Matrix.” The movie co-stars Tilda Swinton as evil corporate twins and Jake Gyllenhaal in what may be the most outre performance of his career, and after a fairly upbeat opening it rockets into an increasingly dire (but still weirdly comic) meditation on the living creatures we eat and the ways they (and we) suffer for it.
Show “Okja” to your teenagers and they’ll probably turn vegan. Show it to a little kid and you’re out of your mind. Watch it for yourself and be dazzled, delighted, disgusted, and distressed — all intended responses from this most playfully perverse of filmmakers. You may want to lay off the burgers for a while.
But see it in a movie theater? Good luck with that. “Okja” was partially bankrolled by Netflix in exchange for distribution rights, and while the film is being released theatrically in New York and Los Angeles — mostly to garner reviews and qualify for Oscar consideration — it is streaming on Netflix. You can see it right now, just not on the big screen.
It’s the latest and noisiest attempt by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to infuriate traditional film distributors and exhibitors while bum-rushing audiences into the future — his future. Despite playing in theaters in only two cities, “Okja” was press-screened for film critics in other major markets, forcing the issue of whether media outlets (like The Boston Globe) should cover the release of a streaming film by a major director as if it were a “real movie.” In the process, Netflix is forcing the issue of how we think of a “real movie” in the first place.
Maybe that’s moot to you — in practice, most viewers in 2017 catch films where they can, when they can, in theaters, on TVs, on laptops, or (shudder) on cellphones. But the issue remains a bone of furious contention in the hidebound global film industry, and Netflix is gleefully pulling the beards of the elders.
Hastings brought “Okja” and another film, “The Meyerowitz Stories,” from Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and The Whale,” “Mistress America”), to this year’s Cannes Film Festival and then caused a furor in the French film industry by refusing to give the two movies a post-festival theatrical run. In response, festival organizers announced that, starting next year, all Cannes entries would have to commit to playing theaters to qualify for consideration.
The situation here in the States is similar, with the big multiplex chains still refusing to book any movie that doesn’t wait 90 days before going to On Demand, while independent distributors are experimenting with shorter windows and “day-and-date” pairings of theatrical showings and streaming. But “Okja,” as alluring and strange a movie as it is, represents a ramping up of the Netflix offensive, and it’s working. A movie that would have likely fallen through the theatrical cracks, made with an indie sensibility but multiplex vision, is now a must-see with an 82 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes and rapturous pull-quotes like “ ‘Okja’ is the first great Netflix movie” (from The Verge).
That’s gilding the lily a little. What “Okja” is is another overstuffed but mesmerizingly crafted Bong Joon Ho movie, pure and simple. The director loves to mash up genres and styles while papering over the spaces with lush digital effects unlike anything you’ve seen. Okja herself is a cross between a pig, a hippo, an elephant, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro; she’s two tons of girl’s best friend on the hoof, and she’s smart. Genetically modified by the Mirando Corporation, Okja is one of 24 “super-pigs” sent to be raised by farmers around the globe, a public-relations ploy to promote acceptance of the company’s GMO livestock.
The problems arise when little Mija refuses to let Okja go off and get butchered without a fight. What ensues is a sharp, farcical scramble from South Korea to New York City, with the hapless beast alternately in the possession of Mirando’s minions, the girl, and a group of endearingly klutzy animal-rights activists led by Paul Dano. There’s a destruct-o chase scene in an underground Seoul shopping mall that plays out to John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.” There’s Swinton baring her fangs as the falsely eco-conscious Lucy Mirando and her evil twin, Nancy. And there are scenes in the Mirando slaughterhouse labs that slowly close the vise on the viewer. By then, our identification with Okja is such that it feels like we’re watching a Holocaust movie.
Not everything works. Gyllenhaal’s Johnny Wilcox, an animal-show TV host who becomes a corporate shill for Mirando, is a tinny cartoon, a case of a gifted actor giving an irritating performance rather than creating an irritating character. The jamming together of tones and tempos can create lumps in the batter. Taste, good or bad, is rarely a concern here. But Bong is a showman in the grand tradition, and when you’re in a showman’s hands, you follow.
I’m starting to think Reed Hastings is a different but just as effective kind of showman — not a visionary but a skilled carny barker luring us into a big new tent. Together he and Bong are changing when and where and how we watch, and, most importantly, what we watch.