Korean director on his controversial Netflix film
LOS ANGELES—Phenomenal South Korean director Bong Joon-ho recently talked to us about his Netflix film, “Okja,” which continues to generate controversy.
After its headline-making debut in Cannes, the film festival organizers changed its competition entry rules.
The prestigious fest will now require competition films to have a theatrical release in French theaters. The move was aimed at movies like those of Netflix that are primarily aired online.
As we write this, majority of the theater chains in Bong’s own country, South Korea, are refusing to screen his film due to the same Netflix controversy that hounded “Okja” in Cannes.
It’s an ironic twist in Bong’s career since he has been directing films for almost 20 years and is one of South Korea’s most popular filmmakers.
With films like “The Host,” “Mother” and “Snowpiercer,” the 47-year-old megman has become an internationally acclaimed filmmaker.
Produced by Netflix and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, “Okja” is Bong’s most expensive film to date, with a budget of $50 million. It garnered generally positive reviews in Cannes.
Bong, once described by Quentin Tarantino as “Steven Spielberg in his prime,” fashioned an entertaining tale about Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun, cast after an extensive search), a young girl who risks everything to get back her beloved mutant pig named Okja from a powerful company. The cast includes Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Byun Hee-bong and Lily Collins.
Okja is a genetically modified, hippopotamus-sized pig that is a visual marvel, thanks to a combination of puppetry, hydraulics and CG technology.
The Korean auteur takes a dig at corporate evil and comments on consumerism and the GMO foods controversy.
While Bong claimed that he didn’t intend “Okja” to convert people into vegans, we avoided meat dishes at dinner right after watching the film.
Excerpts from our chat with Bong, who spoke through a translator:
The movie brings to mind “Soylent Green,” the 1973 film that depicted mass cannibalism as a solution to food shortage. Well, my meat won’t be as tasty (laughs). However, the reality that is shown in “Okja” happens in the near future. It’s no science fiction. They have already developed GM (genetically modified) salmon.
I’ve also met a scholar who’s developing GM pigs. These products are already part of the world we live in.
Without giving anything away, when you filmed that last sequence, were you still able to eat meat? I’m not vegan. I don’t wish to turn the audience into vegans after watching this film. While writing the screenplay in 2015, my producer Dooho (Choi) and I visited a huge slaughterhouse in Colorado. They call it a “beef plant,” because they don’t like the word slaughterhouse.
Watching the process the whole day was overwhelming. But the most striking thing was the smell. After leaving Colorado, I felt that the smell followed me (laughs).
After that experience, my producer and I became vegans for a couple of months (laughs). Then, I went back to South Korea, which is a barbecue paradise. So I slowly returned to being a meat eater.
But now, my level of meat consumption is decreasing. I’m gradually becoming a persekitaran (a change in diet, like turning vegan).
This film is also about trust. Have you been deceived, and how did you handle it? Lots of instances, yes. But I also deceive and lie a lot (laughs). When I was young, my mother discouraged me from going to theaters. She believed that theaters were unhygienic because they didn’t get any sunlight in and were infested with germs—and I could get infected (laughs).
So, I had to watch Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma films on television, which were mostly censored. I was always suspicious when I was watching those films that something might have been cut out.
How was Okja, a visual marvel, created? Fortunately, I had a great designer (Hee Chul Jang), the same guy who designed the monster in “The Host.”
This time, he wasn’t trying to create a scary monster, but a shy and kind-hearted animal. He was influenced by a pig, a hippo and an elephant, but mostly by a manatee in Miami, Florida. That animal is sad and pathetic-looking.
Then, we needed a VFX supervisor to take care of it: Erik De Boer, the man who made the tiger in “Life of Pi,” is the essence of the film.
What did you have on the set for the actors to interact with? We have to express some intimacy between the girl and the animal. So, we (created a stuffed animal standing in for Okja and) called it “Stuffy,” which was made of gray sponge and fiberglass.
In the movie, it looks beautiful but, to be honest, it looked ridiculous on set (laughs).
How did you guide Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal in creating their eccentric characters without making them too crazy?
I agree that Jake’s performance is a bit strong, but that’s inevitable because of the story. Although he’s a scientist, he is also a TV host and entertainer—he’s always putting on a show.
This is something that I noticed when I was editing the film. I realized that in between Jake’s (intentionally) over-the-top scenes, there are subtle moments.
[In Tilda’s case,] she plays two roles (Lucy and Nancy), and each has to be distinct from the other—maybe that’s why her performance is strong, especially the Nancy character. If I met Nancy in person, I’d be terrified of her, especially when she shouts, “F**k off!” (laughs).
Can you talk about your depiction of ALF (Animal Liberation Front)? While ALF activists claim the movement is nonviolent, some critics say otherwise. Even in the film, they contradict themselves. They say they aren’t violent, then they attack the trucks. They’re neither superheroes nor villains, but we should respect their purpose and ideals.
“Okja” made the Cannes festival change its rules to state that competition films must have a theatrical distribution in French theaters. Now, in South Korea, major distributors wouldn’t screen it in theaters because its streaming release on June 29 doesn’t follow the three-week holdback period. There are heated debates taking place in Korea. Nothing is etched in stone yet, but there are lots of independent theaters that wish to show the film, so it’s more a question of the scale of distribution.
What’s your position on the opinion that a film like this should be seen on a big screen versus [the perception that] if it’s released only on a streaming platform, that’s better than the film not getting made at all? As a creator, the most important thing is to get the film made. It’s good that we broaden the opportunity for filmmakers such as Noah Baumbach, Todd Haynes and even Martin Scorsese [to be given] the freedom to create.
Regarding the streaming service and theatrical releases, can’t they coexist peacefully? I wish they’d come to a swift conclusion to this [debate]. It’s their job, not mine (laughs).
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