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11th August 2017

Review: Okja

How a CGI superpig could be Netflix’s saving grace

It’s becoming more and more difficult to deny the inevitable future of digital streaming as the king of entertainment. Since The Sopranos and The Wire, many have cited this early part of the twenty-first century as a “Golden Age” of television, and streaming giant Netflix has played no small part in the medium’s resurgence.

Leading the pack of nominations for the 69th Emmy awards are Netflix’s The Crown, House of Cards, crowd-pleasing 80s throwback Stranger Things and Aziz Ansari’s divine ode to modern romance, Master of None. Back in 2014, a stirring year for television and cinema, Robin Wright made history by winning the first Golden Globe award for a web-based series, (aforementioned House of Cards).

But what to say of Netflix’s current filmography? Up until now, the web-based channel’s slate of Adam Sandler duds, quirky horror thrillers and the rare gem (Cary Fukanawa’s Beasts of No Nation) haven’t done much to inspire great change to the Academy’s manifesto.

Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja marks perhaps only the second time in which Netflix has taken a chance on an established auteur’s vision (Fukanawa, of True Detective fame, takes first prize), a risk that has gifted US Netflix’s biggest and best movie.

It packs a $50mil budget, rich layers of satire of modern corporate, anarchic culture, a near 50/50 split of Korean and English dialogue and a divisively comic turn from Jake Gyllenhaal. The film is everything a blend of genuine independent, foreign filmmaking and corporation-funded, blockbusting entertainment should be. Okja is weird, multicultural, frenetically paced and chaotically subversive, yet never dull or pretentious.

Bong has already cemented himself in the canon of the South Korean Renaissance with his darkly comedic, and occasionally surrealist works. These include Memories of Murder, The Host and his first venture to Hollywood, the underrated Snowpiercer.

He brings a fresh and unique voice to a science-fiction cautionary tale that would have had the danger of feeling preachy under the guidance of any other director. Instead of the bloated, unfocused mess of an indulgent passion project it had every right to be, Okja is tightly scripted, painfully relevant and spirited.

Though its budget is nothing to be sniffed at for a film of its stature, Bong is fully aware of the benefits another $50mill would have had. Despite this, it wears its visual effects shortcomings on its sleeve.

The eponymous Okja is not the most convincing CGI creature you’ll see on your screens this year, but she is surely the most soulful. Bong expertly combines an array of puppetry, camera tricks and exceptionally human performances, and bravely frames his lens close to what is not there. This purposefully draws attention to the illusion of Jake Gyllenhaal stroking the hide of a mythic creature, and paradoxically dictates a sense of intimacy and presence.

Though Netflix is famously covetous of their viewing figures, Okja’s trending on twitter and other social media is enough to earn its status as a “hit” film. The lab-grown and enormously empathetic super pig has been appropriately appropriated as a mascot for vegetarians and vegans, both the previously converted and those inspired to make the change by the film.

Bong himself, who conducted research in battery farms and slaughter houses, stated “I’m gradually becoming a pescatarian”, admitting that the culture around meat consumption in South Korea makes cutting it out completely challenging. A testament to the morally grey messages of the film, which adeptly balances criticisms of glossy capitalism and the hypocrisy of some young liberals, Bong’s only intention is that people “consider where the food on their plate comes from”.

With no theatrical exhibition, other than its screening at Cannes film festival (where it received loud boos during the first few minutes, and a four minute standing ovation during the credits — go figure), it’s tempting to dub Okja a success despite Netflix, not thanks to it. Within the first week of its release, it was clear that the film had found an enthusiastic and extensive audience, and the streaming colossus would do well to learn from its acclaim.

Martin Scorsese’s promise of Netflix showing a Goodfellas reunion in next year’s The Irishman sounds a promising step in the right direction. It seems criminal though, that audiences will be denied a big screen presentation from one of film’s remaining masters.

Sadly, Netflix’s remaining 2017 features, including Death Note and Bright, feel less enticing. A white-washed, cultural downgrade of an anime adaptation helmed by an indie film-maker who would have remained a promising talent were it not for his flop of a Blair Witch reboot (Adam Wingard), and, hot off Suicide Squad, David Ayer’s collaboration with yuppie irritant Max Landis, an urban fairy tale crime drama that feels all too familiar.

Mercifully, a host of inventive miniseries will keep our appetites sated until The Irishman, but, until then, film fans are currently banking on Angelina Jolie (First They Killed My Father) to save the day.

Until Netflix begins to either finance theatrical distribution of their films or — a sinister thought — open their own cinemas, streaming will always feel second place to the experience of the big screen. Thankfully, its trust in interesting and established directors such as Bong and Scorsese should be a promise of better days to come.

Lucas Hill-Paul

Lucas Hill-Paul

Fuse FM’s Head of Podcasting, Co-Host of the Take Three Podcast, Mancunion Film Contributor

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