One of few survivors from the Korean New Wave, which dominated Tartan and Artificial Eye DVDs in the mid-00s, Bong Joon-Ho is a craftsman who has delivered one of the most entertaining films of the summer with his latest, Netflix produced feature.
Beginning in Korea but eventually making its way stateside, Okja is the story of a girl and her giant pig. When a corporation steals the swine, the little girl goes after her best friend. At times this seems like a greatest hits version of Boon Jong-Ho’s career. There’s the city-wide monster chase sequence lifted from his most enjoyable film, The Host. There’s the environmental and social commentary of Snowpiercer, delivered with just as much subtlety in that previous film (not that it matters, for such a cartoonish blockbuster as this). There’s the familial obsession of Mother and the sprawl of Memories of Murder. But this all comes easily to Bong, who oversees this effort with an effortless skill, a strong control of tone and a Spielbergian sense of wonder. There’s also Tilda Swinton, who attempts to one up her Snowpiercer turn as a vicious autocrat channeling Margaret Thatcher by here portraying a humourless, late-capitalist dictator through Teresa May. She is bonkers, but here Swinton doesn’t suffocate the film around her, working as a tool of the entire production.
Jake Gyllenhaal as one of her underlings however, needs to be told to stop. He tries to outmatch Swinton in the extravagance department and just comes off as ill disciplined. Okja is loose to the point of messiness but Gyllenhaal doesn’t help matters. He seems desperate here, as he ever is, to hide his movie star looks behind performative ticks and costume decisions: think Nightcrawler’s weight loss or Southpaw’s weight gain; Nocturnal Animals’ histrionics. Here he dons a Marc Maron ‘tache and plays it camp, leading to a painfully ill-judged drunk scene which intends to be the climax of the film’s horror but instead loses its power as he flops around the frame, slurring his lines to make sure the audience knows he is drunk.
One also struggles to compute the extent to which Okja has been adjusted for Netflix. Integrating the exposition heavy world building with credits neatly avoids the ‘skip credits’ button recently implemented by the company, for example. Vast landscape shots lose their impact on the small screen. With this in mind, has Ho shifted his choice of shots? At times it seems so. But there are still detailed shots which display a strong depth of field.
This adjustment of style is not as egregious as Gladiator, for example, in which Ridley Scott was clearly playing for the booming DVD market by shooting his Roman epic entirely in medium and close up, but Netflix chief Ted Sarandos does seem to have left his mark. Perhaps this is appropriate, as Bong has delivered a product befitting of the medium upon which it is delivered. It is fast paced, with regular location changes and a large cast of characters and cameos.
But it is significant, too, that so much of the conversation surrounding the film inevitably discusses its distribution method. Netflix has once again managed to swallow up the impact of the actual film in order to make the story about themselves, their ability to poach strong talent, and the games they play to promote the product. This time they preyed on Cannes and the publicity hungry Thierry Frémaux, who baited the press into an extreme reaction by selecting Okja (and Noah Baumbach’s upcoming The Meyerwitz Stories, also on Netflix) for main competition. It played right into the hand of Netflix, who managed to drum up anticipation and a positive backlash for this strange Korean film which . Had it been a Fox Searchlight release, it is hard to see such a commercial effort in competition. But had Bong not designed it for streaming, Okja would likely have looked very different.
Ultimately, if Netflix is the only company willing to give a director as proven as Bong a platform, then we cannot complain, even if the results don’t entirely resemble the cinema we remember.