On the 19th of May 2017, in the Theatre Lumiere, the biggest auditorium of the Cannes Film Festival, Okja, one of the two films in competition supported by the giant of online distribution Netflix, was projected. As soon as Netflix logo appeared, such a sea of whistles started that the projection had to be interrupted for a couple of minutes. An unprecedented event. Why this objection? Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories are movies that we will never see at the cinema. Netflix-brand products are bought on the Internet, so as numerous successful series – from Braking Bad to Stranger Things (just to report two examples) – and comfortably enjoyed from the living room. The jury president Pedro Almodovar said before the projection that he, as an unbiased judge, would have assessed the artistic qualities of the film without conditioning. At the same time, Almodovar, as a person professionally connected with cinematography, defended the primacy of the cinema experience, which is “the hypnotic capacity of the dark room lit up by the only pictures projected in big shape”. Will the dramatic spread of film distribution platforms turn viewers, who until now were used to going out of home, into consumers, slaves of compulsive binge-watching? Is on demand television a firm step towards the death of cinema? Probably not, but it is certain that technology is changing production and consumption logics related to the seventh art.
Mija at home (picture from Netflix)
An ambitious film, with great actors
Okja is written and directed by Bong Joon Ho, a South Korean director of successful despotic movies such as The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013). The total production budget reached 50 million dollars. Co-author of the script is Jon Ronson, one of the most borderline pens of British journalism, keen on kabbalah, paranormal entities and investigator of conspiracy theories, also author of The Man Who Stares At Goats of 2009 and scriptwriter of Frank by Lenny Abrahmson, one of the most insane and creative movies of recent years. The wonderful Tilda Swinton stands out among the performers, playing the role of the millionaire Lucy Mirando and of her doppelgänger Nancy, together with the versatile Jake Gyllenhaal in the shoes of an eclectic zoologist and the mask of ambiguity Paul Dano, whom we admired in There Will Be Blood by P.T. Anderson (2007) and in Prisoners by Denis Villenueve (2013), here at the head of an uncoordinated group of animal-rights activists. The cast includes Giancarlo Esposito, an actor dear to the first Spike Lee, and Lily Collins daughter of the better-known Phil. The supervisor of the special effects is Erik De Boer, Oscar price for Life Of Pi.
Doctor Wilcox poses with Okja (Picture from Netflix)
Ethical capitalism is an illusion
Okja is a fable with a moral and highly satirical tones. In 2007 the Mirando, a multinational company with an “ethical” profile reveals the existence of a new type of pig to the world, with an enormous body size and prestigious meat, derived only from crossbreeds and without the of OGM technologies, “so to respect consumers’ new needs and wishes”.The new pigs are ecologically compatible, consume a little and yield a lot. Quite a lot. In the near future meat consumption will be a problem due to the excess in demand, won’t it? During a conference similar to a reality show, Lucy Mirando reveals that 26 breeders around the world, especially in underdeveloped rural areas, have the opportunity to grow one of these nice little beast and to contribute to the production of the perfect specimen “honouring the traditional techniques of their own traditions”. A natural and politically correct path would have ended ten years later with the awarding ceremony broadcast worldwide.
On Mirando’s payroll, the colorful doctor Jhonny Wilcox is the face of the program Magical Animals. Lucy and Jhonny are the symbols of capitalism mystification. The director Bong Joon Ho makes Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaan play always over the top, in order to better convey their function of clowns-slaves of the system. The profit logics, plastically represented by the slaughterhouse-lager at the end of the movie, require masks to bear the brunt of fiction. Ethical capitalism is an oxymoron, an illusion. It will be found out that the pigs are the result of dangerous genetic manipulations. The movie suggests that big corporations must optimize results at the expense of everything. The respect paraded in front of the weakest people, the nobler goals, the attention to the environment are just sophisticated forms of deception.
Lucy Mirando presents the competition (Picture from Netflix)
No one is saved (almost)
The title of the film is the name of the super-pig winner of the competition, Okja, bred in South Korean bucolic mountain landscape by the young Mija -the part acted by the brilliant An Seo Hyun- the only positive character in the whole film. The axe of sarcasm falls also on Mija’s (an orphan girl) grandfather, soon attracted by the sirens of success and earnings. Yes, she, the pacific Okja, is the winner, which means she is the pig destined to be the “foremother” of the specimens to be turned into meat and ham in the years to come. It could be defined as the Pirro’s victory. When the multinational’s emissaries arrive, the grandfather thinks to give the nephew a gold pig as both dowry and repayment for the loss of Okja. But we do not need an expert in economy to know that value-in-use is not the same as exchange value. Nothing will take the place of a tender super-pig which is at the right place in the right time, and contributes to the household by “fishing” the fish of an enchanting little lake diving into it. Mija, very fond of her big friend, is the story heroine, able to perform heroic attempts to save Okja from Mirando’s clutches as far as the capital Seoul and in America. Apart from the one reserved for big corporations and their “ethical statutes”, the most fierce satire hits animal-rights activists and, by extension, the vast front of ideological do-goodism.
Animal Liberation Front (Picture from Netflix)
Animal-rights activists’ bad impression
After a daring pursuit in the highway and a devastating “walk” across the underground tunnels of Seoul, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), headed by Jay, succeeds in catching the super-pig champion, with Mija’s active contribute. What will happen? Will Okja be set free? Will she come back to nature? No. Jay, with his cocky face, has a talk with Mija centred on the purity of principles: “We are good people.. we rescue animals from zoos”, but in actual practice Mija, who does not speak English, is taken in and Okja is given back to Mirando. Animal-rights activists are not interested in an animal’s wellness, but in following up their ideological beliefs. One of the members is on fast “to leave the smallest footprint on the planet that he can”, another one translates wrongly Mija’s answer, who wants just to come back to the mountains with Okja, not to stop the project of incursion in Mirando’s labs. Okja will be provided with a camera hidden under the ear to spy the multinational from the inside.
Okja in New York (Picture from Netflix)
A movie which reflect its era (deforming it)
Okja was shot during US presidential election campaign. When Trump won, Bong admitted that he went back to work back on the dialogues to make them “more political”, while Tilda Swinton was inspired by Ivanka Trump to make her character a deformed mirror of reality so to sharpen the polemical tone of the movie. In the meantime, in Korea, president Park Geun-hye was facing impeachment proceedings and removed afterwards. Bong was skilled at relating the main characters to and building a tale plot consistent with our time. Often Luke Gyllenhaal’s humor is forced, while Tilda Swinton, a 50-year-old woman with a retainer shown to the public as a sign and symbol of the persisting willing to “correct” the nature, seems more at ease in the shoes of the terrible twin Nancy than in the plastic shine built around Lucy by the set designers Kevin Thompson and Lee Ha-joon. Some of the characters may annoy because of their exaggerated grotesque depiction. And it is fair to ask what would Okja have become if it fell into the hands of the genius Monty Phyton, or also just of Terry Gilliam. All in all Okja is an odd movie which has an impact; it is an ecological, irreverent, unconventional and anti-rhetorical story for families.
Nancy Mirando, the true face of capitalism (Picture from Netflix)
Is the paradox of capitalism the reason for its success?
The last question that the viewer can fairly ask himself is the most radical, a question which does not have an answer: is it possible that a movie distributed by a tech giant as Netflix actually condemn capitalism while not condemning itself? Or is this just, for the umpteenth time, a deception promoted by the most advanced form of capitalism (the so-called disruption by the funny hipsters of the Silicon Valley)? Can a film deny those conditions that have brought it to life? A paradox that could challenge the philosophers of the ancient Miletus. A dialectical contradiction that cannot be unravelled. Bong said that he worked absolutely freely, without any pressure from the parent company. After all, if a product works, were it a pig or a movie, it activates the only variable that counts in capitalistic dynamics: the success. And so, again with Almodovar in the trench at Cannes, we are at the starting point, doubtful, fearful in front of the solipsistic drifting of cinematography. It is an unstoppable phenomenon if we think how easily has Netflix spread in our houses.
Nevertheless, we should now reveal Okja’s end. No, don’t worry, I’ll spare you from spoilers. Go to the cinema, nay download the film.
ALEXEIN & Daisy
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