Netflix has been raging against industry norms for decades by innovating the ways we consume entertainment. First, by completely dismantling brick and mortar movie rental chains by offering unmatched convenience via internet browsing and postal delivery. Netflix would then choose to cannibalize themselves with the introduction of its streaming business. But it wasn’t enough to simply deliver content – in order to wrangle customers into long term subscriptions, Netflix moved into episodic content creation with stellar results. Who can’t live without Frank and Clair Underwood scheming to control a House of Cards, or the Spielberg/Carpenter-esque atmosphere and creepiness of Stranger Things? Whatever the television fix, Netflix is pouring it’s soul into feeding our obsessions. But it has not shown much competence in original film. With the exception of their fantastic documentaries, the most watched Netflix movies are critically-hated Adam Sandler comedies. There are some recent gems in Win It All and Sand Castle, but Netflix lacks a truly great film.
Enter Bong Joon-ho, the Korean filmmaker responsible for The Host, and the post-apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer. His latest film, Okja, became the darling of Cannes this year, and is set to debut on Netflix this June 28th. Despite the industries feelings on Netflix’s direct-to-consumer model, Okja represents an awards-worthy “Trojan Horse” that could convince casual moviegoers to skip costly theatrical visits in favor of home comfort, similar to the decline of network television viewership of the last five years.
Okja elevates the creature feature fable into a discussion of friendship, GMO’s and animal cruelty, provoking emotions ranging from glee to depressive. Director Joon-ho takes his viewers on these rollercoasters where one moment we are beaming with hope, the next in utter despair, and finally a moment of cautious relief. Snowpiercer was a great example of this, and much like that film, Okja crowns with only modest reassurance that these characters live happily ever after – somewhat of a Joon-ho trademark.
Mija (An Seo Hyun) is a young girl, who for the last 10 years has raised and cared for Okja, a massive pig hybrid and the perfect pet companion. Okja was given to Mija and her grandfather by the Mirando Corporation, a giant multinational conglomerate with a stained history of GMO’s and shady business practices. Unbeknownst to Mija, Mirando Corp CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer) has big plans for Okja now that the animal has reached maturity. The titular animal was created as a profitable food source, and Mirando has returned to collect their specimen. Mija sets out to rescue her friend in a global chase against time where she crosses paths with consumers and capitalists, protestors and activists. The final showdown reveals the true cost of our meat obsession and the power of friendship.
Joon-ho and co-writer Jon Ronson conjure a story that’s part adventure, part dystopian film, but very much a caution flag to the treatment of animals and our genetically modified food future. While GMO’s are certainly a contemporary topic, the film raises real concern about food capitalism and sustainable food sources. Okja is an effective mouth piece for activists and one of this summer’s best and most important films, it’s also one of the most beautifully made. Netflix may not be welcome to participate at future Cannes festivals, but if Okja is any indication, the streaming giant is hitting its stride and primed to flip another industry.