Late June saw the release of the Netflix-distributed feature film Okja written and directed by South Korean helmer Bong Joon-Ho. This $50million fantasy production with a cast which includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton and Paul Dano marks the first of several bold forays into mainstream film production this summer for the American home-streaming provider more familiar with greenlighting small-screen original television productions. The film itself deals with a wide array of themes, ranging from modern perceptions of the meat industry, the rise of GM foods and corporate culture, however, serving as the cornerstone of the piece is the indelible friendship which exists between young farm-girl Mija and the gigantic super-pig Okja she has hand-reared since being a piglet.
High in Korea’s mountainous mist-dipped forestlands, young Mija (admirably played with equal parts sass and vulnerability by child star Ahn Seo-Hyun) lives in rural idyll with her grandather and the titular Okja, a docile hippopotamus-like creature whose vital statistics are being regularly monitored by the multinational MIrando Corporation under the watchful eye of Tilda Swinton’s barnstorming CEO. Swinton’s media-savvy intentions and the true birth origin of Okja (a quaintly outdated girl’s name for a modern Korean audience) are quickly called into question and the film evolves into a rescue mission to liberate Okja from the Mirando behemoth, the media circus whipped up by Jake Gyllenhaal’s celebrity TV vet and the valiant yet slapstick efforts of Paul Dano’s Animal Liberation Front.
On one level, director Bong Joon-Ho has seemingly crafted an international caper bounding after the porcine heroine as she careers through the streets of Seoul and New York with Mija in tow. Yet below the winning charm of the CGI, lies a more thought-provoking journey utilising physical comedy in tandem with satire, even going as far as creating a mock Mirando Corporation website. These elements aim to make the audience examine the relationship humans have with animals, the influence of the media and multinationals and most perceptively of all, how a true richness of life might still be found in a simpler almost bygone existence.
Bong, 47, has risen to prominence over the last decade with two of his previous works The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013) ranking 12th and 14th respectively as the most successful domestic grossing films of all time in South Korea. His self-penned stories tend to veer towards the sci-fi and fantasy genres while being underpinned by a strong sense of Korean identity often laced with a rich vein of black comedy. For Okja, Bong collaborated with Welsh screenwriter and author Jon Ronson who wrote the English language parts of the story and quickly found a distributor in Netflix Originals, leading in turn to financial backing from Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company. Netflix’s other major feature film offering for summer 2017 is the Brad Pitt vehicle War Machine. Chosen on the roster of the official selection for the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Okja gave rise to much debate among jury members and worldwide cineastes as to whether films predominantly intended for the small screen with limited theatrical release are eligible for competition at international film festivals. Netflix’s modus operandi found a staunch supporter in official Jury Member Will Smith who commented, “In my house, Netflix has been nothing however an absolute benefit. Netflix brings great connectivity. They get to find those artists.”
In more ways than one, Okja might seem to be a film revolving around and born of contrasting backgrounds. The juxtaposition between the safe haven Mija’s rural farm offers and the corporate, profit-driven streets of New York being one example. On a creative parallel, this wider local versus global theme may also be mirrored in the film’s production and exposure to audiences on both the small and large screen.
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How might films such as Okja come to represent a turning point in the evolution of the viewing methods of cinema audiences worldwide?