Culture

Film & Television

Superpig in the city

By Luke Goodsell
Director Bong Joon-ho on ‘Okja’, Netflix and the new cinema model

Stranger things have happened at the Sydney Film Festival. Still, in the ornate, art-deco surrounds of the city’s State Theatre, the Netflix logo felt vaguely absurd as it engulfed the closing-night screen, accompanied by the Pavlovian rush of the synth sound that usually heralds a lazy night of domestic entertainment. The streaming giant’s header, infamously greeted with boos at Cannes, arrived here – for me at least – as a sigh of relief; the film that followed, South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja, felt like an atomic charge detonated after a festival whose offerings had tended toward the safe.

It’s full-tilt, genre-defying entertainment concerning the adventure of a young girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), and her genetically engineered superpig, Okja. The pair are on the run from the clutches of an unscrupulous, Tilda Swinton–headed multinational meat corporation. Like Bong’s other work, it’s a wild ride, warm and imaginative and satirical and wonderfully directed – precisely the kind of film that will make you want to see it in a cinema. For those who weren’t at the festival screening, however, the only place to catch Okja is on your TV, laptop or other device when it’s released on Netflix this week.

When I sit down the following day with Bong Joon-ho, who at 47 has the casually dishevelled hair of a cool uncle, he’s presiding over a cutesy superpig soft toy that seems bound for kids’ Christmas stockings. It’d be almost twee if not for the fact that Okja is a movie that also features the giant creatures getting sliced up in the grisly detail of an abattoir documentary, and a violent scene of forced animal coupling that gives an uncomfortably literal dimension to the phrase “squeal like a pig”. But those are just the kinds of movies – tonally adventurous, true to themselves – that Bong makes. Like his previous film The Host (2006) – a comedic monster movie with eco-politics – and Snowpiercer (2014) – an action thriller circling class warfare – Bong’s latest film is hard to classify. It’s no wonder his closing-night remarks included a shout-out to George Miller’s kids’ movie Babe: Pig in the City.

“I do feel sorry for the marketing department that has to figure out the genre and try to sell the film,” Bong laughs. “Usually they just give up in trying to define it. But to me, that’s praise.”

Netflix may have a hard time labelling Okja, but as its producer and director Bong had free rein to make exactly the film he wanted. Considering it’s the sort of movie that would have Hollywood studio executives scrambling for their script notes in terror – What if we made the pig pink? Maybe it should talk? Do we really need a rape scene? Okja’s development under Netflix and co-production company Plan B came with a surprising amount of creative freedom.

“They never interfered with anything they didn’t like,” Bong says, “be it casting or certain parts of the script. They were all fully supportive and they just went with the flow.”

“Netflix is very obsessive over high-end technology,” he adds. “Usually it’s the other way around: the director or the cinematographer strives for these high-end technologies and it’s the studio who declines this for time or budgetary constraints. Netflix was the opposite: they would keep pushing for these new, cutting-edge technologies for the film.”

Bong swings for the fences, too, both formally and conceptually. Shot in lavish 6.2K digital by renowned cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, The Immigrant), Okja is part kids adventure story (“a child’s worst nightmare,” he jokes) and part broad takedown of rapacious capitalism, played with both tender fearlessness (Ahn) and leering, outsized performances (Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal) that make Terry Gilliam’s actors seem tethered to reality by comparison. Bong’s the kind of filmmaker who’s deeply thoughtful about the suffering of animals while also harbouring a peculiar obsession with mangling Swinton’s teeth for yuks. “Whenever we’re together,” he says of his star, “the producer wants to tear us apart because of the ideas we come up with.”

It’s also a truly international production, with a cast and location spanning several continents and a universal sense of humour and social justice. Within this post-national utopia, however, it’s tempting to see a certain cultural specificity: Bong’s heroine is a young Korean girl who must stand up against a US-based multinational conglomerate. Irony duly noted.

“There’s a certain paradox to that because this film is a satire about multinational corporations,” Bong says. “However, in order to achieve this, the scale has to be increased such that it couldn’t be made in a normal Korean studio, or as a normal Korean film. I needed a lending hand from a multinational corporation to make the film. Thankfully, Netflix didn’t have any problem with the political stance or the satire of the film.”

But Bong is hesitant to draw parallels with Korean–American relations, and suggests that his young heroine could hail from anywhere. “The important thing is the pure heart,” he says, “the pure connection between man and animal. It’s more ubiquitous, more broad, the essence of the film, rather than cultural identity or ethnicity.” This is arguably reflected in the design of the animal itself: part pachyderm, part porcine, and with the loyal comportment of a dog, Okja could be an avatar for the plight of all animals around the world.

Indeed, as the traditional borders between content delivery begin to dissolve – with mediums more fluid, and the avant-garde more likely to manifest on an iPad than at the art houseOkja and Bong feel like standard bearers for a cinema that’s collapsing the old battle lines once drawn between outmoded ideas of media. With just a handful of special theatrical engagements planned for Okja, millions more people will see the film in their homes than in traditional cinemas – but what does a theatrical experience even mean these days?

“I don’t believe I’m eliminating a means of watching films, such as in the theatre,” Bong says. “This phenomenon is just adding a way that audiences can watch films. The theatre will survive. I don’t think it’s going to go extinct. I do feel like the theatre chains need to become conscious of and start to compete with this new platform, this internet platform of iTunes, Netflix and Amazon, because they are developing very rapidly technologically. Theatres have to prove themselves.”

That question of how to prove themselves has been something movies have wrestled with on and off since the early days of television, of course. Recent years have seen studios shift to a seemingly endless repetition of foreign market–friendly franchises that harness familiar brands. The fact that Okja – an auteur-driven but distinctly crowd-pleasing entertainment – is on Netflix isn’t just ironic; it could serve as a wake-up call to reinvigorate the traditional studio model.

Maybe that’s Bong’s plan. “To be honest, I don’t want the audience to watch the film on a very small screen, such as a phone,” he confesses. “So in certain types of shots I shot it to intentionally dissuade the audience – into watching it on a bigger screen. For example, when Mija runs to her house from the graveyard, it’s an extreme long shot and Mija is a very, very small dot. On an iPhone, you cannot see it. I tried to make audiences give up watching it on their phone. I wanted to obstruct the viewing experience of people who watched it on that.”

Bong laughs – perhaps a little too mischievously – at this admission, all too aware that he is dropping the best promo for going to the cinema right into the comfort of people’s living rooms. It says something of his commitment to the theatrical experience that Bong is in the process of striking 35mm prints of Okja to screen at Los Angeles’ New Beverly, the theatre owned by self-appointed celluloid preservationist and anti-digital snob Quentin Tarantino. Bong is also pushing for a wider release in Korean theatres, while his next film – a thriller whose working title is Parasite – will be theatrically released and shot back in Korea with an all-local cast.

Before we end our conversation, I ask him – perhaps obviously – if he’d ever consider making a kaiju film. Bong laughs, and lights up with a playfully impish look; no doubt the same one that he and Swinton terrorise their producers with.

“Maybe if it was something three times bigger than Godzilla,” he says, “so it’s very hard to see the whole creature in the frame.” Like such a mythical beast, it seems no screen can contain the colossal scope of Bong’s ideas – or sense of mischief.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is an award-winning film critic and editor whose work has appeared in ABC’s Final Cut, 4:3 Film and SBS Movies.

@timebombtown

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