‘Okja’ Is Netflix’s First Must-See Movie
Netflix has won 20 Emmys over the last five years. Over that same period, they’ve only been nominated for seven Academy Awards, all in documentary categories.
The list of Netflix original television series over that time reads like the greatest hits of the peak TV age: Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Black Mirror, Master of None, Dear White People, BoJack Horseman, and Making a Murder, just to name a few. The list of Netflix original movies since 2012 sounds like the inventory of the saddest discount DVD bin ever: The Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, Imperial Dreams. They’ve released a couple decent features (I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore), but the ratio of good-to-bad is brutal. Special Correspondents? The Ridiculous 6? True Memoirs of an International Assassin? War Machine? They could rename the original movies section of Netflix’s website “Hard Pass.”
Starting today, though, Netflix has its first unqualified cinematic must-see. Okja from Korean director Bong Joon-ho. This brilliant coming-of-age story and corporate satire would be the best movie in theaters — if it was playing in theaters. (The film is getting a small limited release in a few arthouses.) Netflix’s base streaming plan currently costs $8 a month. You get your money’s worth for June with a single viewing of Okja.
The globe-trotting story begins in Bong’s home country, where a girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) cares for and plays with her “super pig” - a genetically engineered mega-swine that looks somewhere between a hippopotamus and the sweetest St. Bernard that ever lived. This creature, which Mija calls Okja, was created by the Mirando Corporation, a global technology company looking to rebound from mismanagement and bad press. A decade ago, the corporation’s CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), sent these super pigs to various local farmers all around the world. Ten years later, the best super pigs are being summoned to New York City for a publicity stunt to kick off the mass marketing of their delicious food products. And Okja, with her friendly demeanor and ferocious loyalty to Mija, is clearly the best super pig.
Some Mirando flunkies and an obnoxious reality TV star (played by a magnificently manic Jake Gyllenhaal) swipe Okja, so Mija gives chase. On her journey to reunite with her porky best friend, she encounters a group of militant (but amusingly polite) animal rights activists led by Paul Dano. He needs Mija and Okja’s help in exposing Mirando’s cruel business practices.
Whether Mija will agree to assist him, and whether his crew of slightly bumbling vegans will succeed, is a matter of much suspense in the film. But viewers familiar with Bong’s unflinching filmmaking style — his previous efforts including the bleak monster movie The Host and the bleaker dystopian thriller Snowpercier — will not be surprised when he leads viewers into the darkest and most horrifying parts of Mirando’s super pig slaughterhouse. The movie begins with scenes of pure innocence and natural beauty, and concludes with a vision of something close to pure processed-food hell. Okja herself may be adorable, and the basic scenario may recall Steven Spielberg’s E.T., but this movie is not for children, at least not ones who don’t want to be scarred for life or transformed overnight into vegetarians.
At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Okja’s status as a “Netflix movie” generated a ton of controversy. Just before the festival began, Cannes changed its admission rules to ensure that in the future only movies that “commit [themselves] to being distributed in French movie theaters” would be screened, prompting a wide debate about whether the streaming service was a force for good in the movie industry.
I love the theatrical experience more than almost anyone, and I would’t trade it for anything. That doesn’t change the fact that none of the American studios who release movies to theaters would have made Okja. The performances from Gyllenhaal and Swinton would have to be toned down; the punishing climax would have to be brightened up. They would never allow a filmmaker to spend this much money on a movie this weird and dark (not to mention full of subtitles).
Netflix let Bong get away with murder, almost literally in that shocking ending, and I can’t think of anyone that would have given him this much cash and creative freedom. That is something worth celebrating and supporting. It‘s taken a while for Netflix to make a movie this good. But now that they have, you’d have to be nuts to want them to stop.