FILLS UP YOUR SENSES
Review by Paul Preston
Man, Netflix is an interesting conversation. SO much to talk about, not the least of which is how often I struggle to find a MOVIE on NetFLIX, amongst all the TV shows and comedy specials. Also, they recently got booed at the Cannes Film Festival, no doubt that happened because Netflix isn’t necessarily a cinematic entity, but they are representing themselves in competition at a féte that celebrates cinema in the theaters. This is a fascinating conflict because the filmic artists who hole up at Cannes are not the same filmmakers as the moviemaking money whores who are running the studios and won’t greenlight anything that doesn’t kick off or continue a franchise or try to cash in on nostalgia. So, the Cannes naysayers have a point, but they’re a minority on this side of the Atlantic.
Of the top TWENTY movies in the U.S. so far this year, only FIVE of them (Get Out, Split, A Dog’s Purpose, Captain Underpants & The Boss Baby) are original. Other than that, pirates, superheroes, Legos, Cars, Transformers, aliens, mummies, Power Rangers, King Kong, Fast and Furious and Beauty and the Beast, we’ve been here a million times before. So where do the original films go? Where do the riskier projects go? They’re going to Netflix.
There’s a place in the industry for both blockbusters and director-driven projects, that’s been proven in the past, but I fear the blockbuster mentality has taken over more than ever. When Lucasfilm screws with Gareth Edwards and fires Chris Miller and Phil Lord from the Han Solo film, they’re not exactly embracing the directorial signature. So, if a director has a vision, like Baz Luhrman, Angelina Jolie, David Ayer, Duncan Jones and reportedly Martin Scorsese, they go where they’re allowed to deliver their film, their way. David Lynch has sworn off films, jumping to Showtime to make whatever the hell this season of Twin Peaks is, HIS way. I know there’s a lot of money on the line, but why did you hire ____ in the first place?
Netflix’s latest release, Okja, is from Korean director Bong Joon Ho, who had a notable run-in with Harvey Weinstein over his last film, the remarkably original sci-fi film Snowpiercer. Weinstein’s company is a great distributor of independent-minded films, and Quentin Tarantino’s biggest champion. And yet he meddled when it came to the final cut of the theatrical release of Bong’s epic, despite its successful run in Korea and France. Bong objected. The result? The Weinstein Co. released Snowpiercer in about 1/10th the original number of screens in the U.S., like it was some kind of punishment for not going along with the boss. This isn’t even chowderheaded big studio thinking, this is The Weinstein Company.
My point is, this type of behavior isn’t going to keep your directors gruntled (is that a word?) – they’ll be jumping ship for Netflix where they can do their thing, their way. Ashton Kutcher was recently on The Howard Stern Show and said that’s the very model used to create his show The Ranch. Kutcher wanted to come to Netflix with a new show and they just gave him the money and trusted him to deliver. Lo and behold, The Ranch is successful and in season two with Kutcher as EP. It’s great to see artists have somewhere to go, but I also love the cinema, and if the marginalizing of the director’s role and vision doesn’t change (coupled with the general public’s lack of care about any of this), there won’t be a cinema very, very soon.
It’s no surprise, then, that as much of a fan as Bong Joon Ho is of the big screen, his Okja comes to the states by way of Netflix. Watching Okja, you can quickly see how it would scare the hell out of a studio suit: there’s over-the-top acting, a giant pig-like beast that poops routinely and comedy in the most unlikely of places. It risks early and often, you’re either on board soon or in for a long movie.
Tilda Swinton plays the head of a meat corporation bent on solving the world hunger problem with the bulk production of “super pigs” – giant creatures bred solely for mass meat consumption. True to today, the raising of the super pigs is done in a nationwide contest. Ten years in, a winning hog farmer will be declared by hack TV zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal). Vying for first place is Okja (not an entirely unusual name in Korea), a super pig raised in a remote Korean farm who has a best friend in a young girl named Mija (played by An Seo-huyn in another remarkable child actor performance). She doesn’t want to see Okja become meat and neither does a team of lovable but horribly awkward environmentalists led by Paul Dano, who hatch a plan to get Okja out of competition that leads all the way to New York City.
The above plot flies between sweet moments of joy to outrageous action sequences (one where Dano’s team whisks Okja through an underground shopping complex half-set to JOHN DENVER is particularly exhilarating). Swinton and Gyllenhaal’s performances are as broad as can be (especially Gyllenhaal), and in these moments, Okja is a true satire, only to have the film turnaround and break your heart with a trip to a slaughterhouse. My suggestion – just go with it, ‘cause you’ll be offered up a dose of whopping originality.
Director Bong (as actor Steven Yeun called him in a Q&A I attended, and I would like to be called Director Paul when I make a movie) has a history of taking environmental issues head on (I wouldn’t say the comments are thinly veiled). Snowpiercer dealt with man-made climate change and Bong’s The Host is about a city-attacking creature that’s the result of toxic waste dumping. His message about the world’s messy food consumption is can’t-miss here, as the corporate-types behind the Okja experiment are either cold as ice or despicable parodies of themselves. But equally sent up is the environmental group, (the Animal Liberation Front), who can’t seem to get their act together despite their honest, yet sometimes laughable, morality. Throughout, Okja the super pig herself is a marvel of CGI (and puppetry). There’s rarely time for any doubt that there’s a super pig walking or running through this adventure, and her expressive eyes speak volumes.
Okja will have a theatrical run here in Los Angeles. The iPic and in Santa Monica. The great New Beverly Cinema in Hollywood will run it for a week as well, but everyone else will have to hit Netflix to see it. Cannes attendees, you need to realize that you and Director Bong are fighting the same fight – against underqualified, lazy studio executives. Cannes boo-ers, you need to redirect your yelling at them, ‘cause Bong made a film that is squarely in your camp.
You may end up saying, “What the hell did I just see?”, but you have to see it.
Directed by: Bong Joon Ho
Release Date: June 28, 2017
Run Time: 118 Minutes
Country: South Korea/USA