Is it a movie? Or a Netflix streaming event? Why can’t it be both? We’re going to have to get used to the one-two punch in the new age of cinema, which now cedes the multiplex to blockbusters and often sends the creative minds of indie cinema scrambling to find a financing and a home. The Netflix logo stamped on Okja got booed at Cannes, not because it’s a lousy movie (quite the opposite, in fact), but because the French are hating on Netflix for not opening South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s latest movie in the country’s cineplexes. U.S. theater owners are also getting antsy: Why should filmgoers go out when they can stream a movie at home at exactly the same time? You can duke out over the semantics. I’m calling Okja a real movie, whichever way you see it.
Here’s why: Director Bong has already earned deserved props for staging of The Host and Snowpiercer. In this feverish fable, he’s created a fantastic tale about lab-engineered super-pigs, so cute kids want them as pets. These adorable, giant porcine creatures are secretly being sent to the slaughterhouse, however, to provide genetically-modified food for the masses. This doesn’t sit well with Mija (An Seo-hyun), a little girl who found one of jumbo hybrids, named her Okja and took her home as an adopted family member. The beast is a cutie, and the movie gets a ton of fun mileage out of watching her roll around and bash into furniture.
The dark side – and with Bong there’s always a dark side – comes when Okja is kidnapped and Mija must try to save her from the bad guys who want to turn the animal into pork patties. Jake Gyllenhaal acts up a comic storm as Dr. Johnny, a potbellied TV host who wants to bring Okja to New York as a sort of King Kong freak show. Mija is appalled. So is the Animal Liberation Front, led by Jay (Paul Dano), a do-gooder with violence issues. Still, the vilest villain is the Mirando Corporation, run by twin sisters Lucy and Nancy (both played to hilt and beyond by Tilda Swinton) who think nothing of chopping up their creations into yummy snacks. A public outcry? No way. “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it,” Lucy says.
And there you have it. A movie that’s part kiddie treat and part horrorshow – who else but this visionary filmmaker could blend sentiment and blood splatter with such righteous abandon? Yes, this far-out fable is too much in every department. But it is also the work of a visual storyteller drunk on the power of movies to stir things up … and maybe even to heal. It’s a bumpy ride, for sure, but hold on. Okja is worth it.