A South Korean fantasy-thriller featuring an international cast is arriving on the screen worldwide next week — in many cases the screen of your living-room television. The sci-fi romp Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho and starring Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ahn Seo-hyun, is produced by the streaming giant Netflix, and its strategy of hiring a brand-name filmmaker and A-list cast for a high-budget “television movie” looks set to challenge the landscape of global film consumption and distribution.
Okja will debut on June 28 on Netflix for its 100 million subscribers around the world. The film will also be released in cinemas on the same date in just a few countries, and last week Okja had its glittering premiere in Seoul, where homeboy Bong walked the red carpet with Swinton and other stars. Last month, Okja generated one of the year’s most heated discussions when it was selected to compete at Cannes Film Festival, prompting a vociferous outcry from French cinema operators that a made-for-television movie that bypasses theatrical release was honoured with a main Cannes slot.
But at the Seoul premiere last week, the film was warmly welcomed, and the spectre of controversy was quelled by the excitement around the film itself. Okja, which is actually more thrilling on the big screen, tells the story of a rural Korean girl and her monster best friend as they face off their adversaries in Seoul and Manhattan, while the film’s overarching themes revolve around heavy subjects such as food security, genetic manipulation, environmental crusade and corporate greed.
“It’s truly a joy for us to finally bring Okja home to Korea,” said actress Tilda Swinton, who — along with cast-members Giancarlo Esposito, Steven Yuen and Anh Seo-hyun — took the time between selfies with fans to speak to members of the press about their upcoming film.
From the mountains of Korea to the streets of New York, Okja follows Mija (Anh Seo-hyun), a young girl living with her grandfather in the rural mountains of South Korea. One of 26 farmers worldwide to be entrusted with raising a “super-pig” — a genetically-modified part-hippo, part-pig giant created by American agro-company Mirando — Mija develops a deep friendship with the creature, which she and her grandfather name Okja. When Okja is finally taken back by the corporation, which plans to slaughter and sell Okja for her meat, Mija embarks on a journey through the underground shopping centres of Seoul to the bustling streets of the Big Apple to get back her friend, aided on the way by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), an animal-rights activist group with extremist tendencies.
“One of the things my experience with the film helped me to do is really examine the truth of where my food is coming from, and being more considerate of things like that,” said Steven Yuen, who portrays ALF-member “K” in the film.
“For the longest time, we have been getting further and further from our symbiosis with nature. You look at your food on the table and you think, ‘that’s exactly what meat looks like, and it grows from a tree’, for all you know.”
While very much a film that criticises the mass-scale meat production system, Yuen doesn’t believe that Okja is meant to discourage people from eating meat, but rather to remind people of the things that need to happen for meat to get on their plate.
“The whole food industry narrative is — in a way — a fable for something much deeper, which is the whole question of the way in which we as human beings relate to not only non-human beings, but even more so our own fellow humans,” added Swinton, who portrays the twin scions of the Mirando Corporation, Lucy and Nancy Mirando.
Having collaborated with director Bong on previous projects — as well as holding a producing role in this one — Swinton said that the characters of Lucy and Nancy, the former an outwardly bubbly, approachable, PR-savvy businesswoman, the latter a ruthless deal-maker only concerned with profits, are characters that she has been developing for almost four years, characters which, at the time, seemed like a rare, even extreme example of ruthless capitalism.
“Lucy represents the ‘woke’, fake, eco-friendly, PR-obsessed frontperson, while Nancy is more honest, she’s bombastic and utterly dedicated to business, making deals and oppressing people absolutely without sense of shame. And we know many people, public people in very powerful positions in the world right now, who are in her club. Lucy has gone out of her way to be as different from her sister as she possibly can be, but she still can’t step away from the power of being very rich and exploitative.
“I think its really time for people to look seriously at what capitalism really asks of us. The numbness that it asks of us, the blindness, the deafness and the dumbness that it asks of us. There is no better time than now, because the shit is hitting the fan all over the world.”
Bong Joon-Ho on Netflix cineplexes
Bong Joon-ho has become one of Korea’s most internationally respected writer-directors for his ability to come up with intricate plots, stylish direction and tough social critiques packed in an entertaining shell. The Host has an American-made monster wreaking havoc in South Korea; Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller set in the new Ice Age that is actually discussing class revolt; and the earlier film Memories Of Murder is a nail-biting detective story set in a rural town.
Okja stirred up recent controversies when it was picked for the main competition in Cannes without securing traditional theatrical release. In Korea, major cinema chains didn’t carry the film. Bong discussed the film with Life.
Your film became the centre of much debate at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. What are your thoughts on that?
Honestly, I don’t know how to feel. If anyone is to blame for all this, it should be the French organisers who didn’t sort out whether or not Okja should be included in their festival before inviting me. It’s very disrespectful, I feel, to extend an invitation to someone only to make them the centre of such controversy. But film festivals always like this sort of drama, so at least Okja contributed that to the festival.
Part of the problem seemed to do with the fact that Okja is a Netflix production. What was it like working for Netflix, as opposed to more conventional production studios?
I’ve only made six films so far, so I don’t have the widest frame of reference, but it was a very joyful experience with Netflix, as they didn’t only finance the film 100%, but also guaranteed total creative freedom. This promise of creative control is, I believe, what makes Netflix so appealing to great authors and directors to work with. Even Martin Scorsese has signed on to direct one of their films, called The Irishman, which I believe will begin filming in August.
It seems Okja has also been having its fair share of drama at home as well, as many South Korean multiplex chains have boycotted showing the film in their cinemas.
I’m very understanding of the multiplex owners’ demands for the live-streaming release date to be pushed back after the cinema release, but I’m also partial to Netflix’s opinion. The entire production budget of Okja was paid by Netflix after all, and all that money comes from their subscribers, so it would be impossible for us to hold back the film from them. Netflix themselves aren’t even interested in distributing their films in cinemas at all. The desire to have Okja screened in cinemas is largely mine. And although some of the multiplex cinemas have refused to show the film, plenty of other smaller, independent theatres have agreed to do so, so in the end it works out.