At the press screening of “Okja” at Cannes in May, there was a chorus of boos when Netflix’s logo flashed onscreen. Here was the new film from Bong Joon-Ho, the acclaimed Korean director of “The Host” and “Memories of a Murder” – and yet it was financed by an online streaming service. That meant that it would be released on the internet and in cinemas simultaneously, an unconscionable faux pas as far as Cannes’s cinephiles were concerned. Two hours later, though, the boos had been replaced by cheers. Not only was “Okja” a deliriously enjoyable romp, it was so unconventional that no major Hollywood studio would ever have funded it. If it weren’t for Netflix, the film wouldn’t have been released online, in cinemas or anywhere else.
The difference is that a standard studio makes its money by selling as many cinema tickets as it possibly can. Netflix and other streaming services, meanwhile, make money by keeping their subscribers interested. They can afford to choose more adventurous, auteur-friendly projects. In the words of Jon Ronson, the British journalist who co-wrote “Okja”, “Netflix and Amazon are offering freedom and resources to idiosyncratic voices in a manner that studios have rarely done for decades, not since the days of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘The Deer Hunter’.”
Bong certainly has an idiosyncratic voice. “Okja” opens on a snazzy presentation being given in New York by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the frighteningly enthusiastic CEO of the Monsanto-like Mirando Corporation. Her agrochemical company, she says, has got its hands on a breed of mutant pig which could eliminate world hunger. Each specimen provides a huge amount of nutritious and succulent meat in relation to the food it consumes and the waste it produces. And if these super-pigs happen to be deeply lovable and highly intelligent, well, that never stopped anyone killing animals for food in the past.
One such porker is raised in an Edenic forest in the Korean mountains by a girl, Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong). Mija names the gentle giant Okja and tends to it lovingly as it grows into a roly-poly cross between an elephant, a hippo and a Triceratops. But at the age of ten, Okja has to be shipped back to Mirando headquarters. Mija has other ideas. Determined to be reunited with her enormous pet, she races to New York, via Seoul, dodging Mirando’s employees and teaming up with a band of bumbling Animal Liberation Front activists who could be direct descendants of the Keystone Cops.
With its rollicking action and comedy, its fearless young heroine and her cuddly computer-generated co-star, “Okja” could be mistaken, for much of its running time, for a live-action Disney yarn in the tradition of “Pete’s Dragon” and “101 Dalmations”. But there are a few sequences which explain why Netflix, rather than Disney, had to foot the bill. Every time you think that Boon has made a classic children’s fantasy adventure, he throws in some swearing, some jarring violence or some dystopian horror. There is Lucy’s promise that her super-pigs will “taste fucking good”; there is the ALF chief (Paul Dano) brutally beating up his lieutenant; and there are the gloomy slaughterhouse scenes which would be cut from any Disney film – especially if the studio was planning a cross-promotional deal with McDonald’s.
You can see why most Hollywood accountants would react to “Okja” about as enthusiastically as most vegetarians would react to a super-pig sandwich. On the one hand, it has the sprawling scope, the elaborate stunts and the cutting-edge visual effects of a mega-budget blockbuster, but on the other hand it has the anti-corporate satire, the disorientating tonal shifts and the general eccentricity of an indie curio. Maybe it has too much. If a conservative studio had toned down some of its wilder moments – such as Jake Gyllenhaal’s zany performance as a celebrity vet – “Okja” might have been even better. Still, if a film-maker with Bong’s vision has been allowed to make the ambitious film he wanted to make, we can hardly complain.
One of its boldest novelties is its internationalism. “Okja” is a story about global capitalism, and Bong has been able to tell that story from a global perspective. Thanks to Netflix’s involvement, he has said, the film “does not have to be so aware of the boundaries between national borders and ethnicity and culture”. “Okja” was shot in South Korea, Canada and the US. It has lengthy sequences in which everyone speaks Korean, and lengthy sequences in which everyone speaks English, whereas in a typical Hollywood blockbuster the Koreans – if they appeared at all – would be given only a few subtitled sentences in their own language before switching to English. “Okja” also has one key scene in which Mija speaks Korean, the ALF chief speaks English, and an interpreter translates what they’re saying. What’s unusual about this scene is that Bong lets us hear the whole of each line in both languages, so the dialogue lasts twice as long as normal. Slowing the pace as it does, this approach is almost never adopted in Hollywood, and it seems, initially, to be another example of Bong going about things his own quirky way.
But maybe this technique makes sense in a globalised market. Big-budget American films are increasingly reliant on Asian audiences, so if they’re going to survive, they may have to treat those Asian audiences with the respect that “Okja” does. Backward-looking studios, as well as backward-looking Cannes habitués, should take note. Bilingual dialogue and online distribution might both be unorthodox at the moment. But they might both be the norm in just a few years’ time.