At this point there are no Chicago screenings scheduled for Okja, the eccentric children’s fantasy from South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host)—only a streaming-video release from Netflix, the movie’s producer, beginning June 28. Netflix insists on offering its original content to online subscribers immediately, without giving theater owners a window for exclusive exhibition; normally that isn’t a problem, because few of the company’s original features could survive in a theater anyway, but things are different when you’re distributing something like Okja, the latest vision from a certified auteur in his creative prime. French exhibitors protested when Netflix was allowed to screen the film in competition at the Cannes film festival, and so far they’ve refused to book it for a commercial run (though there have been scattered one-off screenings in France). In South Korea, three major theater chains are boycotting Okja because of the simultaneous VOD release; here in the U.S. the movie is screening for the public only in New York and Los Angeles.
I was lucky enough to see Okja on the big screen last week, when it was previewed at River East 21 as part of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema series, and to me the idea that it will be largely confined to people’s living rooms seems absurd. With its grand scale, child-centric story, ample special effects, and heavily Western cast (including Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito, and Shirley Henderson), Okja might have found a wide audience in the U.S. Swinton (an exceptionally cultured woman with a documented weakness for donning fake teeth) stars as the heartless CEO of the Mirando Corporation, an agrochemical giant that genetically engineers 26 “superpigs” and places them with farmers around the globe as part of a goodwill campaign. Ten years later the company comes back to collect the giant pigs (which look more like rhinoceroses with their rounded snouts and gray, leathery skin), and a South Korean farm girl, played by Ahn Seo-hyun, must rescue her beloved pet, Okja, from the slaughterhouse.
Actually the notion of Okja reaching a mass audience in the U.S. is probably just my own fantasy, because a fair amount of the dialogue is in subtitled Korean (especially at the beginning) and Bong’s critique of industrial meat production is a little too pointed (in a haunting scene near the end, superpigs low piteously in their stockyard as they’re dragged one by one up a ramp to the rendering plant). But you have to savor the irony of a movie about corporate control being so tightly controlled by the company that funded it. Okja may have a chance of running free before the credits roll, but Okja has yet to be liberated. v