A month after it’s world premiere at Cannes, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja closed the Sydney Film Festival and eleven days later was available for streaming to “your device”.
There was a certain controversy about its inclusion in Cannes as video-on-demand or streaming without a theatrical release was thought to be against the spirit of the French festival. There were mutterings about future changes to the rules.
It seems clear Cannes will have to do the adjusting as Okja is obviously a feature film, unseen before the Mother Of All Festivals and part of the new world of near instantaneous releases on multiple platforms.
They are designed in part to push back against bootlegging (who can trust anyone with a Digital Cinema Package?) and against peer-to-peer file sharing. But it also capitalizes on publicity, itself a creature of near instantaneous clicks on multiple platforms.
There’s little doubt about Okja’s crowd pleasing intent. It’s at its best in the first act when the film confines itself to the kid’s movie genre. A rural Korean girl Mija lives with her grandfather in idyllic surrounds, caring for, and being cared by, a very large, genetically mutated pig. Their contented, enviable lifestyle is brought undone by the arrival of a PR crew and the celebrated television personality and veterinarian Dr Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Okja then, seemingly deliberately, starts going off the rails. Dr Johnny is a sort of amalgam of Jimmy Saville and Steve Irwin and is extravagantly overacted by Gyllenhaal – like demented vaudeville.
Johnny works for the Mirando Corporation, who are breeding genetically mutated pigs for market to satisfy the world’s food shortage. Mija, of course, knows nothing of this and the film follows her to Seoul and New York City, where aided by an Animal Liberation Front, she attempts to free Okja from the bad guys.
|Tilda Swinton, An Seo-hyun|
The film channels Babe, but much like Bong’s earlier work (Snowpiercer, Mother, The Host) a comic strip mentality is fused with grotesque over-the-top performances from Gyllenhaal and from Tilda Swinton, who produces two of her most uninspired performances as the Mirando twins, Lucy and Nancy.
Much like Brad Pitt in War Machine, their acting styles clash violently with the far more naturalistic performances from An Seo-hyun as Mija, Paul Dano as the leader of the Animal Liberation Front, and poor Giancarlo Esposito who often looks just bemused, perhaps wondering how his understated acting style from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul has ended up here.
Bong’s talent is undeniable and on display in the very good first act and later, in several well-staged action sequences. Yet he has problems with other big set pieces such as the huge pig pageant in a New York street and later, with the set-piece concentration camp/abattoir for the big mammals. Not that there’s much wrong with the latter, it’s impressively created and well directed, but given all the don’t-take-this-too-seriously sequences leading up to this denouement, the emotional effect is seriously undermined. Again, it’s very close to the tonal inconsistency in David Michôd’s War Machine.
Let’s hope it’s not a developing Netflix house style.