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.