'Okja': Bong Joon-Ho Had 'No Restrictions' Making His Miyazaki-Inspired Movie for Netflix
At Cannes, 'Snowpiercer' director Bong Joon-Ho sings the praises of production with Netflix.
In a moment of near-perfect irony, the screen shut down midway through the opening sequence at the Cannes premiere of Bong Joon-Ho's Netflix film Okja. As is par for the course at the festival, there were cheers and boos in the audience. Many wondered if this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage one of Netflix's two Cannes films in competition this year—a programming decision which has generated controversy among critics and was yesterday denounced by Jury President Pedro Almodóvar. After all, these screenings might be the only chance for audiences to see Okja in theaters; it premieres exclusively on the streaming platform June 28.
Okja is somewhere between Pixar and Miyazaki.
"I thought it was the Animal Liberation Front," Jake Gyllenhaal aptly joked at the film's press conference, referring to the technical difficulties at the screening. Okja is the story of young Mija (An Seo Hyun), a Korean farmer who bands with the ALF to rescue her beloved childhood pet, Okja, a genetically-modified "super pig" that she and her grandfather were paid to raise in the mountains as an experiment for the Mirando Corporation (a thinly-veiled Monsanto analogue). Mirando is presided over by a megalomaniac CEO (Tilda Swinton) who intends to rebrand the corporation as non-GMO and eco-friendly, despite the fact that it is, in practice, exactly the opposite. Meanwhile, the ALF has hatched elaborate plans to sabotage Mirando and expose its cruelty for the world to see—and recapture Okja in the process.
Okja is a genre-bending comedy-action-drama. "I never do this on purpose," said Bong, "but when I make a film, the final result ends up mixing genres. People can’t say my film is this or that genre, but they can say it’s a Bong Joon-Ho film, which is a great honor."
In keeping with Bong's commitment to elaborate metaphors, action, and humanitarian themes—exemplified in his previous film, Snowpiercer—Okja is an evocative adventure with strong political messaging, dealt without a heavy hand. The film's emotional depth and reverence for nature places it somewhere between Pixar and Miyazaki; in fact, the latter inspired the film.
"Miyazaki is a director I greatly admire," Bong said, "and I’ve loved him since I was a kid. We talked about him often with Tilda [Swinton]. I believe that as a director today, if you want to talk about nature and life, you cannot help [being] in the shadow of this very great master."
"We worship Miyazaki," echoed Swinton. "It’s beyond emotion. It’s beyond cinema. It’s a place you can go to. If I’m in a coma, I want someone to play me Miyazaki."
Of course, unlike Pixar or Miyazaki films, which benefit from the immersive experience of a theatrical release, Okja can't be seen on the big screen. This doesn't seem to bother Bong, who emphasized an overwhelmingly positive experience in production with Netflix and revealed that the "open-minded" company had initially entertained the idea of a theatrical release.
"There are thousands of films screened at Cannes that people never see in theaters. Netflix has given Bong Joon-Ho a chance to make his liberated vision a reality." —Tilda Swinton
"I loved working with Netflix," he said. "They gave me great support. The budget for the film is considerable. Giving such a budget to a director isn’t very common. I had total liberty. It was a wonderful experience, in terms of shooting and editing—they never intervened, and they truly respected me from beginning to end. Quite frankly, they gave me total freedom, with no restrictions."
"As in many matters, there is room for everybody," Swinton elegantly concurred. "Let’s be honest—there are thousands of films screened at Cannes that people never see in theaters. Netflix has given Bong Joon-Ho a chance to make his liberated vision a reality, and for that, I'm so grateful."
For Gyllenhaal, the fact that Okja will be accessible to an ostensibly wider audience on Netflix lends it staying power in the political discourse.
"Sometimes it’s an issue of when a movie comes out and what it has to say," Gyllenhaal said. "The platform of a film—how far it can reach to communicate a message—is extraordinarily important. It’s truly a blessing when any art gets to reach one person, let alone hundreds of thousands of people, particularly in today’s day and age when we are inundated with information—sometimes true, sometimes not."
"The environment is facing threats," he continued. "There is no better time for this film and about it says about our love for natural resources and the environment, given the political state, than now."
"I live outnumbered by animals," Swinton said. "Some of them are human. We can read Okja as a message for how to live: with loyalty, patience, dedication, simplicity. It's an important corrective at a time when capitalism is really upping its game in finding ways to trick us into being consumers more than sentient beings or people who live with nature."
"I just wanna say that I love my dog," Gyllenhaal added.
"I'm sure I won't eat as much meat as I did before," said Hyun.