The bonkers action-adventure from Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer) has been a source of controversy ever since it was included in competition for Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or honor, with film-festival organizers later announcing that movies without theatrical distribution will not be eligible for the prize starting next year.
But few could have predicted that the boos would continue well after the Netflix title card flashed across the screen at the Grand Théâtre Lumière, as members of the international press loudly jeered throughout Okja’s first 10 minutes. The reason? A technical malfunction that caused the top and bottom of the frame to be cut off. The film was stopped for roughly 15 minutes before successfully restarting from the beginning, although the booing was briefly revived when Netflix’s name reappeared.
When asked about the screening snafu at a press conference afterward, Bong simply laughed. “What happened this morning, I’m happy about it,” he said with the help of a translator. “You people can watch the opening sequence twice. There’s a lot of important things there.”
Questions of how the director and cast felt about the Netflix spat far-outnumbered those about the film itself, which follows a young farmgirl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), who embarks on a quest to save her best friend: a genetically mutated “super-pig” named Okja, who was engineered by an ominous corporation in a bizarre attempt to solve world hunger.
Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her pet, a “super-pig” named Okja. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)
“It’s really important that the president feels free to make whatever statements he or she (wants),” Swinton said. “But the truth is, we didn’t actually come here for prizes. We came here to show this film to the Cannes Film Festival and people who have gathered here from all over the world. … It’s an enormous and really interesting conversation that’s beginning. But if you want to know what I really think, there is room for everybody.”
When asked how she feels that most people worldwide will see Okja on their laptops or smartphones, Swinton pointed out that thousands of Cannes entries won’t ever be seen on the big screen.
“It’s all an evolutionary process,” Swinton said. “Netflix had given Bong Joon Ho the chance to make his absolutely liberated vision a reality, and for that, I’m so grateful.”
Bong added: “They gave me great support. The budget of the film was considerable and a budget of this size is rare for filmmakers. … They gave me total freedom, in terms of the casting, shooting and editing. They put no pressure on me. There were no restrictions on their part.”
‘Okja’ star Jake Gyllenhaal, left, Tilda Swinton and director Bong Joon Ho attend a photocall Friday during the Cannes Film Festival. (Photo: Andreas Rentz, Getty Images)
Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays a flamboyant TV zoologist in Okja, also chimed in on the debate. He concluded that a platform of Netflix’s size can only be a good thing for the English-Korean-language movie, whose budget is estimated at $50 million.
“It’s truly a blessing when any art gets to reach one person, let alone hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people,” Gyllenhaal said. “Particularly in today’s day and age, we are inundated with information — sometimes true, sometimes not. (It’s important that) we get artistic expression in whatever form that we can. I think that debate is essential always, so it’s a wonderful thing to have this discussion about how art is perceived and distributed. It’s essential to continuing this form forever.”
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