Okja is the first great Netflix movie — here’s why that matters

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Okja is a lot of things. It’s the latest intensely specific vision from Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho. It’s a ham-fisted environmental parable. It’s a sweet coming-of-age story, a wonky 21st century iteration of E.T., and another thrilling opportunity for Tilda Swinton to be weird as hell. But whatever else it is, it’s also exactly the movie Netflix needed to release this summer.

Bong’s new film is a near-future science fiction love story, the tale of a young farm girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and a massive genetically engineered pig named Okja. The forces working to pull them apart are Tilda Swinton’s Monsanto-inspired agro-chemical company on one side, and Paul Dano’s Mr. Robot-y environmental activism group on the other. Jake Gyllenhaal’s weaselly Zoboomafoo-era television host is also in the mix, playing the stomach-churning MC of the whole affair. It’s a dizzying hodgepodge of neoliberalism critique, coming-of-age saga, and heist flick. Bong soundtracks a scene of pratfall mass destruction in an underground mall with John Denver’s shlock classic “Annie’s Song,” in a tonal clash that could be the envy of any number of stylish young pastiche directors. But his long, grotesque scenes in a New Jersey slaughterhouse look like something you’ve seen only in the worst grindhouse slasher film on the shelf.

Netflix doesn’t need to tell anyone that this movie couldn’t have been made through traditional Hollywood channels. The fact that Gyllenhaal holds the Apple logo at the center of an iPad up to the camera for a long 10 seconds while torturing the film’s hero says that plainly enough. Okja is great, but it also functions as a billboard for creative freedom and unhinged budgetary leniency. This movie screams “Bring your work to Netflix, and we’ll pay for A-list actors, bonkers visual effects, and yeah, sure, a terrorist attack staged in lower Manhattan.”

Just as important: Okja is a masterpiece that could draw a flame war, and has. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, the Netflix title card was reportedly booed. The incident followed weeks of back-and-forth between Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, the festival board, and the French film industry’s governing body, bickering over whether a film that wouldn’t be released in French theaters should qualify to compete for the Palm d’Or. Eventually, Netflix was disqualified from future years in competition, and it didn’t take home the festival’s top award, but what it got instead was arguably better: weeks of conversation around the egalitarian spirit of cinema. It also granted Hastings an opportunity to take the stage at Recode’s Code Conference and thank Cannes for the extra attention, adding, “Sometimes the establishment is clumsy when it tries to shut out the insurgent, and then the insurgent’s role is to play that up, which we did.”

Shortly after that, major movie chains in South Korea announced they would boycott Okja, in protest of Netflix’s plan to release the film in theaters and on its streaming service the same day. In the United States, Okja will play almost exclusively in high-end iPic theaters in Los Angeles and New York City. Though there are cultural and artistic reasons to care about theatrical releases, it’s impossible to argue that Netflix’s streaming audience — reportedly 100 million subscribers as of April — doesn’t push them toward financial irrelevance. And if film is supposed to be an accessible, global art form, how much better could you do? War Machine director David Michôd told The Ringer that it was hard to come to terms with his movie skipping a theatrical release, but Bong has ridden the crest of this change. The Weinstein Company notoriously shot Snowpiercer’s theatrical release in the foot after he refused to make edits to his bizarre, dystopian English-language debut. The film made almost all of its money from VOD services and streaming, and in a recent press conference in Seoul, Bong said, “[Okja] is, after all, financed by Netflix users, and I don’t think we should deprive them of their privileges.”

Bong Joon-ho is an apt symbol for the future of film. Almost every time he was asked about the controversy around Netflix’s release strategy, he dodged the question and reminded audiences and press yet again that Netflix let him make the strange, specific movie he wanted, with no limitations. That’s a powerful trump card in a spat about the future of a notoriously conservative industry with declining profits. “The best way to watch a film is in the theater. But for directors who make weird films like mine, the digital studio platforms are a great creative opportunity. I do believe that the two [modes] can coexist,” Bong later told the LA Times.


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Image: Netflix

Netflix’s status as a TV production studio was solidified with early hits like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, the sheer range of its output, and rumors of huge budgets and creative freedom. But it’s had a harder time with feature-length movies. Its first original film, 2015’s Beasts of No Nation, was reportedly viewed 3 million times, but failed to make a splash with awards audiences or critics. Earlier this summer, the $60 million Brad Pitt-produced War Machine seemed to only flicker in public awareness. The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey wrote last month, “This has thus far been the Year of the Netflix Original Movie. Which is not to say that 2017 has been the Year of the Great Netflix Original Movie. We don’t yet know what a great Netflix movie looks like.”

Okja (also backed by Pitt’s Plan B production company, for what it’s worth) could change that. If it doesn’t, Netflix also has Adam Wingard’s Death Note due out in August, Dee Rees’ Sundance opener Mudbound coming sometime in the fall, and David Ayer’s Bright, a $100 million fantasy epic starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, debuting in December. In all, Netflix is set to push out 30 original films in 2017, and it recently signed Universal’s comedy hit-maker Scott Stuber to steer the ship.

All of these titles are intriguing bets, but none so much as the movie that made Netflix the splashiest renegade at Cannes, outpacing the similarly booed and similarly new-wave Amazon Studios. (Amazon Studios chose to sidestep the Great Film Industry Disruptor label that Netflix has so consciously pinned to its lapel. And Amazon already has a Best Picture Oscar.) Okja is the best Netflix movie so far, but it’s also the Netflix movie poised to take home production design and visual effects awards at an Oscars ceremony that will likely resist giving the maligned streaming site any of its top honors, even though the Academy owes Bong some overdue attention.

Netflix needed a movie good enough that any resistance would look like entrenched old-school bullying, and it found that in Okja, an epic that’s equal parts sardonic and sincere. Bong Joon-ho’s unique cinematic vision unfolds here, as it did in Snowpiercer, as a slow, wide grin. When the credits roll, it’s obvious why Netflix thought this was such an apt statement film for summer 2017. For viewers, it’s a fun film. For industry-watchers and filmmakers, it’s a statement of intent that’s hard to ignore.

Okja will be available to stream on Netflix starting June 28th.

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