Cary Joji Fukunaga's 'Beasts of No Nation' challenges audience perceptions in both content and delivery

by Mike Sunda

Special To The Japan Times

There was a time when the term “straight-to-video” conjured up images of cheap, low-quality sequels and B-movie knock-offs, inevitably featuring the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, and destined to line the shelves of video rental stores without ever making it to the vaunted window display.

But now online video streaming services such as Netflix and iTunes are threatening to banish rental shops to the past, and as they venture into the game of securing platform-exclusive releases — any sense of superiority or legitimacy attached to a cinematic run might be set to disappear, too.

The litmus test for this is arguably director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s latest feature-length production, “Beasts of No Nation,” for which Netflix bought the worldwide distribution rights for around $12 million — twice the film’s production budget.

Based on Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala’s debut novel of the same name, “Beasts of No Nation” follows the journey of a young West African boy who is coerced into becoming a child soldier for rebel forces after the army shoots his brother and father. Challenging, uncompromising and entirely unsentimental — full of murder and disturbing power dynamics within the militia — it’s the sort of picture you might expect many studios to balk at — less “Netflix and chill” than it is “Netflix and kill.” It is, however, expertly crafted and beautifully filmed, and the streaming service is said to be planning a strong Oscar push for the feature.

“Because the box office isn’t an important element, it frees you of any guilt in terms of the financial performance of the film,” director Fukunaga says with a laugh. “It allows it to just exist based purely on a critical and general audience response to it. It also means they can choose more daring or risky stories, which would definitely not get financed in the studio.”

Fukunaga, who once lived in Hokkaido for a four-month spell and has a Japanese-American father, received plaudits for previous feature-lengths “Sin Nombre” and “Jane Eyre,” but is perhaps even better known for his directorial work on the first season of HBO TV series “True Detective.”

As production values skyrocket and A-list actors and actresses trade big-screen roles for small-screen ones, the line between cinema and television is increasingly blurred, paving the way for storytellers like Fukunaga who aren’t so concerned about the choice of medium.

“(The change) is partially driven by the way that people consume media now. This movie is being consumed online in the same way that a television show is, so is it a movie? Is it a TV-movie? What is it?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s a two-hour story.”

“Beasts of No Nation” is currently available via Netflix.

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