Jeers and cheers for Okja at Cannes

Director Bong Joon Ho (sixth from far left), with cast members (from far left) Devon Bostick, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins, Paul Dano, Tilda Swinton and An Seo Hyun, arriving in Cannes for the screening of Okja.
Director Bong Joon Ho (sixth from far left), with cast members (from far left) Devon Bostick, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins, Paul Dano, Tilda Swinton and An Seo Hyun, arriving in Cannes for the screening of Okja.PHOTO: REUTERS
Tilda Swinton and An Seo Hyun in Okja.
Tilda Swinton and An Seo Hyun in Okja.PHOTO: NETFLIX

A technical glitch during a screening of the Netflix movie draws boos from the audience, but closes to strong applause

CANNES • A technical glitch last Friday halted a screening of Netflix's first movie to compete at the Cannes Film Festival, but Okja, Bong Joon Ho's fantasy film about a genetically modified pig, which opened to boos, ended to hearty applause.

As controversy continued to swirl here over the streaming giant's decision not to give the title a French theatrical release, loud boos arose from the audience, followed by some cheers, when the Netflix credit appeared on-screen at the first media screening of Okja, starring An Seo Hyun, Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Even more boos broke out when the film's framing was off for the first few minutes. It was started again from the beginning and the festival issued a statement apologising for the technical problem.

Directed by South Korean Bong, known for Snowpiercer (2013) and The Host (2006), Okja is the story of a little girl's relationship with an intelligent giant pig that has, unknown to her, been bred by an American biotech company for cheap meat.

The animal is saved, but also used, by activists from the Animal Liberation Front.

The Guardian newspaper, which gave the film five stars, said: "How can this movie's producer - Netflix - ever be content with just letting it go on the small screen? Apart from everything else, the digital effects are spectacular and the visual images beautiful. It's a terrible waste to shrink them to an iPad."


Okja "just rattles along with glorious storytelling gusto in the spirit of Roald Dahl, E.T. creator Melissa Mathison and Dodie Smith, author of 101 Dalmatians", added critic Peter Bradshaw.

Sight & Sound magazine said the "snazzy science fiction succeeds as both a critique of the modern meat industry and a bittersweet tale of the bond between a girl and a mighty beast".

Last Friday, Netflix also broke its silence with a message that could be summed up as: The culture is changing and we listen to our 100 million customers.

"We're living amid a generation that has seen every great movie ever made on a phone, so I think we all have to come to grips with where technology takes us," Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said in a 90-minute interview here with several news media outlets.

He said Netflix had chafed at a French rule requiring a three-year delay between a film's theatrical release and appearance on a streaming service, part of the country's complex film-financing system. Talks in France to reduce that delay broke down this month; the country's new government is expected to tackle the issue.

Under pressure from French film entities, the festival announced last week that it had changed its rules to require future competition films to have a French theatrical release.

At a news conference here last Wednesday, Pedro Almodovar, the Cannes jury president, read a manifesto defending theatrical screenings and said it would be a paradox to give the Palme d'Or top prize to a film that would not be seen on screens. "The size of the screen should not be smaller than the chair you're sitting on," he said. "You must feel small and humble in front of the image."

Mr Sarandos called that view "beautifully romantic".

"Why would we want to hold back a movie for an enormous number of people to enjoy throughout the entire country so that a few hundred, maybe a few thousand, people could see the film in Paris?" he said. "It seemed like the right thing to do was to give the people, our subscribers, who pay to make these movies, access to them immediately all over the world."

Asked if the festival organisers had been aware that Netflix was not seeking a wide theatrical release in France, he said: "They were fully aware of our release strategy."

Gyllenhaal said he was drawn to the Netflix project because of the company's large viewership.

At a news conference for Okja here last Friday, the actor said he had wanted the movie - with its strong environmentalist message and critique of capitalism and genetically modified food - to connect with a wide audience.

"The platform of a film - how far it can reach, how many people it can a message to - is extraordinarily important," he said. "It's a true a blessing when any art can reach one person, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people."

The other Netflix-produced film at the festival is The Meyerowitz Stories, directed by Noah Baumbach.

Netflix has local content in 23 languages and is filming in 19 countries. This year, it will distribute 50 feature films, not including documentaries.

Mr Sarandos would not reveal how many subscribers Netflix has in France or elsewhere, saying only that half of its 100 million subscribers are in the United States and the rest are in 189 other countries.

He said about 30 per cent of the content Netflix subscribers watch in any country on an average day is local, although that can vary, and that Netflix has invested €1.75 billion (S$2.7 billion) in European content since 2012.

It was at a previous Cannes Film Festival that Mr Sarandos made a connection with Mr Thierry Fremaux, the festival's director. They went to a screening of a newly restored The Lady From Shanghai (1947) by Orson Welles. "That's when we bonded and he saw I really do love movies," Mr Sarandos said.

Netflix is financing the completion of The Other Side Of The Wind, Welles' unfinished film. Mr Sarandos hopes it might debut at Cannes. "I've talked to Thierry many times and said this is where we'd like to show it," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline 'Jeers and cheers for Okja at Cannes'. Print Edition | Subscribe