'Okja' Is One of the Best Movies of the Year but You Won't See It in a Movie Theater
By John Boone
Last week, I sat down in the screening room at Netflix's luxurious new offices, a wealth of concession-worthy snacks from their lobby kitchen in tow. As the lights dimmed, I leaned back in the plush red chair and, for two hours, enjoyed one of the best movies I've seen so far this summer -- after having already suffered through enough dimwitted lifeguards and nonsensical robots and swashbuckling drunkards to last the year. That movie is Okja, and you (probably) won't be able to watch it in a movie theater.
Okja, from visionary director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer), may star Oscar darlings such as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton and it may have competed for the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, but Netflix, unlike other streaming services, is holding true to its business model and streaming the movie. You can watch it at home now.
Okja is essentially a call to go vegan (or at least vegetarian) masquerading as a sprawling creature feature. It centers on the multi-national Mirando Corporation, which puts forth a 10-year contest for selected farmers around the world to raise the best possible superpig. At the end of that decade, when Mirando comes a-calling, a young South Korean girl, Mija (newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun), must set out on a global journey to save her best friend, Okja, her adorable "pet" superpig.
The movie features big performances (Gyllenhaal oscillates between squeaky Willy Wonka to drunken Steve Irwin, while Swinton, in braces and a blonde bob, is a twisted delight), big action (including a thrilling chase sequence through Seoul set to mariachi music), and some big pigs (that look like inflated Fiona the baby hippopotamuses). It is all beautifully filmed, but the most common way you'll be able to watch it is on a small screen. Could you imagine if the first time you saw Snowpiercer was on a TV? (You don't have to imagine -- it will soon be a TV show on TNT starring Daveed Diggs from Hamilton.)
Ultimately, it is a real catch-22. Okja is so strange and unique and thank god Netflix (along with Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment) is funding movies like this -- it's the only art house action movie half subtitled in Korean with endless fart jokes that you'll need this summer. So, not to disparage the art of Netflix and chilling, but it's a shame that (outside of just two theaters in L.A. and two in New York) you won't be able to see it theatrically, especially as Netflix is watched less and less on an actual TV but on a laptop or 5-inch iPhone screen.
Joon-ho himself expressed his desire to have the movie broadcast on a big screen, saying, "The controversy was caused due to my cinematic selfishness. As a director, it's natural to have a desire to show the movie both on streaming and movie screens."
(The Netflix of it all has caused its own fair share of controversy. When Okja premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the fact that it was produced by a streaming service resulted in boos, and the festival changed its rules so that no movie may compete in subsequent years if its release does not include a theatrical window. Theater chains in South Korea have also threatened to boycott the film because of Netflix's day-and-date release.)
My other favorite movie of the summer, The Big Sick, also comes courtesy of a streaming service -- Amazon Studios -- but is available in theaters. (It's out now in L.A. and New York City and expanding to additional cities on June 30 through a distribution partnership with Lionsgate.) The Big Sick doesn't have the same big-budget set pieces as Okja -- it is a rom-com, the classic story of boy meets girl, boys' parents want to arrange his marriage with a Pakistani bride, girl goes into a coma -- but there is still something about seeing it on a big screen, sitting in a theater in the dark surrounded by strangers and feeling that happiness and heartache together, without any temptations to pause the movie to grab a snack or to continuously refresh your Twitter feed. That feeling, I think, won't change, no matter how much the platforms we watch on do.
I don't have an answer to the ongoing theater versus streaming debate -- just a preference. And it's only one conversation that will occur as streaming services continue to blur lines more and more. Earlier this week, I was surprised to see a "For Your Emmy Consideration" billboard for This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, a documentary that premiered at Sundance before having an admittedly quite limited theatrical run in L.A. and NYC. (Neither of which actually disqualify it from the Emmys, according to official guidelines.) So, that must mean it's being submitted as an Outstanding Television Movie? Which would make YouTube Red, the platform where it is made available, television?
Yet, oftentimes, Netflix isn't. The delineation is clearer with Amazon Studios, which won its first Academy Award with Manchester by the Sea, the first film from a streaming service to be nominated for Best Picture. (Manchester ran theatrically through Roadside Attractions.) Netflix also won an Oscar with its documentary short, The White Helmets. What makes one a movie-movie versus a made-for-TV movie? Should there be a category specifically for made-for-streaming movies? And the whole mess is made even more complicated by the fact that, under the right circumstances, a movie could be nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy. Any line between movies and TV is getting thinner, and the easy answer is: The Internet has no rules. If there is a hard answer, perhaps we will find out when Okja starts campaigning for the 2018 Oscars.