To fully appreciate the achievement of Bong Joon-ho’s new film, you probably have to begin with his last one. That was the extraordinary Snowpiercer, released in the U.S. in 2014 after a lengthy, public battle between director Joon-ho and distributor Harvey Weinstein, who lived up to his “Harvey Scissorhands” persona by demanding 20 minutes of cuts and the addition of Blade Runner-style voice-overs to “clarify” the action for “audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma.” When the director politely refused, Weinstein reportedly cancelled the film’s planned wide release and punted it to VOD-centric subsidiary Radius/TWC, which released it on eight screens against a Transformers movie; it never went wider than 356 theaters, mostly because its VOD release date was already set for two weeks hence. And it only secured that many locations because it did so well in its first week. It was hard not to surmise that Joon-ho, and his film, had been punished for his refusal to kowtow to a mogul’s creative interference, particularly when The Weinstein Company had likewise buried James Gray’s magnificent The Immigrant, for similar reasons, the previous spring. Snowpiercer was ultimately a success story (particularly for cinema’s VOD day-and-date experiment), but the filmmaker had clearly paid a price for his stubbornness and integrity.
I would advise, to those familiar with this backstory, the entertaining parlor game of imagining everything Weinstein, or the studio head of your choice, would’ve objected to while watching Joon-ho’s latest picture Okja. But who’re we kidding – you’ll be far too engaged and entertained to think of anything beyond the delights onscreen. Yet this film, which hits Netflix and select cities today, barely a month after its controversial premiere at Cannes, is a vital pivot point in the ongoing conversation about pros and cons of the streaming service’s growing influence on the business of contemporary cinema. The fact that it exists at all, in what is so clearly a form unsullied by executive hands, is a victory. That it’s brilliant is a nice bonus.
It’s a film that, in many ways, defies description, so let’s keep the summary details as basic as possible – both in the interest of brevity and of preserving the swerves of its zonko narrative. Simply put, it’s the story of a girl and her giant pig; said pig is Okja, a genetically-mutated “super-piglet” raised in the mountains of Korea by the girl, Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her grandfather. Okja got there via the Mirando Corporation, as part of a ten-year PR stunt that sprinkled 26 such animals around the world, before they’re bred and/or slaughtered for their meat. Mija, however, doesn’t know about that – she sees him as a big, playful pet, and we see him much as she does. They frolic in the forest, swimming and sleeping, until the ten-year alarm goes off, and the day comes for Mirando to collect Okja for a big event in New York City. Mija is, to put it mildly, not hearing it. And off we go.
As with Snowpiercer and its predecessor The Host, Joon-ho works in a slippery, almost undefinable tone, juggling social satire, science fiction, visceral action, and genuine emotion. He does all of the above, more often that not, simultaneously. He’s a ruthlessly efficient filmmaker – witness an early scene, with Mija and then Okja hanging over the edge of a cliff, which works both as a tense set piece and a wordless dramatization of the force of their bond. Or note the striking contrast between the photography of the warm, leafy forest and clean, cold spaces of the Mirando office building. (The cinematographer is the gifted Darius Khondji.) The thrilling energy of his camera movements is bracing, particularly in the two big sequences that are basically Okja-on-the-loose numbers, in a style reminiscent of a Godzilla movie, but he manages to turn even those traditional scenes on their heads with unexpected juxtapositions and counterintuitive musical cues. It’s big, and fun, and satisfying.
But it’s also – and there’s no more elegant way to put this – really fucking weird. He’s got Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal crafting performances that seem to take the notion of “going broader” as a dare. He’s got a title creature that functions both as a tragic centerpiece and a shooter of projectile poop pellets. He’s got a bunch of animal rights activists who are given the uncommon duality of being both pretentious hipsters and banner-carriers of an important cause. And through both that subplot and a climax of horrifying slaughterhouse brutality, he ends up making about the most fervent anti-meat manifesto imaginable this side of documentary – a vegetarian blockbuster. If they thought Snowpiercer might not play in Iowa and Oklahoma…
But refreshingly for Joon-ho and luckily for his audience, the people writing the checks this time don’t seem to care about all that. Word is that Netflix allows filmmakers, of both its original films and its acquisitions, to work basically without interference. Osgood Perkins, director of last fall’s Netflix original I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, described the collaboration thus:
We sent it to Netflix and the next day they said, “Yeah, great.” And I said, “No changes, no notes?” “No, no changes, no notes.” We asked for money and they gave us the amount of money we wanted, which was two-and-a-half times as much as we had the first time. And they let me put whoever I wanted in it. And they never bothered me and they never came to the set and looked over my shoulder. They never came to the set. And at the end of the process, in the final week of cutting they had five notes and they were all great. That’s the truth, word for word, about Netflix.
And why shouldn’t they work like that? The studio executives and independent financiers who so often muck up the works are, to be fair, mostly just trying to protect an investment – to insure a film reaches the widest possible audience, and thus attempting to eliminate potentially alienating elements. But aiming for that wide audience results in flavorless, bloodless product. The folks at Netflix don’t have the same kind of bottom line; their thresholds for success are barely known outside their boardrooms. But they’re certainly not worried about the revenue loss of someone canceling their membership because Okja is bonkers. So why not let Bong Joon-ho go off and make his damn movie?
Yes, obviously, Netflix has its flaws, some of them considerable. There’s basically no curation of their streaming library, resulting in a dearth of viewing choices from the first half of the 20th century – which is particularly troubling now that the service basically ended the video store. There have been ongoing issues with aspect ratio, and other oversights that betray their treatment of cinema as pliable #content. There are genuine, founded concerns that their festival buying sprees are resulting in good films getting lost in their gaping programming abyss, insufficiently supported by a lack of pre-release marketing and buzz screenings. And there’s a real question, raised anew by the controversy surrounding Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) at Cannes, as to how much Netflix is hurting its original films by refusing to alter their simultaneous streaming/theatrical release strategy into something more traditional and exhibitor-friendly, like the staggered windows favored by rival Amazon Prime.
But these are, when you get down to it, business questions. If there’s one thing the movie business has fumble-fucked over the past few years, it’s keeping business out of art, and if they’re doing everything else wrong, the thing Netflix is doing right is hiring great filmmakers and getting the hell out of their way – and that’s a mission that runs strikingly counter to the current norms of the industry. If you don’t believe me, ask Phil Lord and Chris Miller, dismissed in mid-production of a Star Wars movie for, it seems, inserting too much of their own personality and style into their work; better yet, ask any filmmaker not named Christopher Nolan or Clint Eastwood who would like to make a movie at Warner Brothers.
Okja, on the other hand, lets us see a master at work, and in full control of his art; watch, in awe, at how nimbly he navigates the tonal shifts, the wild narrative spins, even the geography of his space. What makes it such a great film is its singularity, its very Bong Joon-hoo-iness, the degree to which it reflects the specific preoccupations and style of its sui generis creator. Neutered of its oddball detours and freak flourishes – robbed of the very elements one can easily imagine the Harvey Weinsteins of this industry jettisoning – it would probably come out as both a safer movie, and a duller one. That didn’t happen. And that’s worth celebrating.
“Okja” is now streaming on Netflix and out in limited release.