Korean director Bong Joon Ho: Only Netflix allowed me to make Okja my way

With Okja, South Korean director Bong Joon Ho said Netflix gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted.
With Okja, South Korean director Bong Joon Ho said Netflix gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted.PHOTO: NYTIMES

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho says studios did not like the slaughterhouse scene in his Cannes hit Okja

NEW YORK • •After South Korean director Bong Joon Ho debuted his new film Okja at Cannes, audience members leapt to their feet for a minute-long ovation.

But when the logo of its studio, Netflix, flickered on-screen, they jeered. To much resentment, Okja, about a steely girl and her imperilled giant pet pig, will not be shown in French theatres because of the country's restrictive film rules.

Bong, 47, later said he understood the booers' ire; of course, films are best seen on a big screen, in the dark, with people all around.

But were it not for Netflix, he continued during an interview in New York recently, Okja, as he conceived it, could not have been made.

The film, written by Bong and Jon Ronson and starring Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano, tells of the tweenage Mija, an orphan who lives with her grandfather and best friend, Okja, a six-tonne genetically engineered pig, on a verdant mountaintop in South Korea.

The corporation that created Okja, and hundreds of her kind, wants the creature back and plans to use it as a publicity stunt to sell industrially produced meat.

With Okja, Bong said, the studios the story was pitched to had seemed more or less on board - at least until it came to that last bit.

"For the studios, the recurring questions was, 'Are you going to keep the slaughterhouse scene?'

"They saw a girl and beautiful animals. They wanted something like Disney. But Netflix gave me 100 per cent freedom to do whatever I wanted."

Okja will open on just three screens in the United States on Wednesday, the same day as its streaming debut. It also begins streaming in Singapore on Wednesday.

This "day and date" release, as it is known, is prohibited in France, where three years must elapse before a film that hits French theatres is allowed to appear online.

It was a rule that Netflix executives could not stomach.

In South Korea, where Bong is a star, the top three cinema chains have threatened to boycott the film unless Netflix delays streaming it there.

Bong said he regrets that Okja is getting such limited cinema showings, but that nowadays theatrical releases account for a short part of a film's lifespan.

There was also the matter of creative control.

His 2013 film, the dystopian thriller Snowpiercer, narrowly avoided studio-mandated editing.

Its US distributor wanted to shave off 20 minutes and backed down only after test audiences responded more favourably to Bong's cut.

"These new providers," he said, "are a new and fresh opportunity."

The idea for Okja started, he added, when the image of a large, ungainly animal with a sad face popped into his head.

Bong, who is celebrated for his thrilling visuals and dark bite, began wondering why it was depressed and about who might harm it, and then about humanity's selection of some animals as edible and others as pets.

While there are abattoir scenes and no shortage of heartache, much of the film is madcap, light and shot through with Bong's wry humour.

The plot also hews to a socially conscientious thread that runs through his previous work.

In his 2006 film The Host, a heavily polluted river yields a monster.

Snowpiercer, which was based on a graphic novel, is about the last human survivors of a climate-change experiment gone wrong, living in privation on a socially stratified, perpetual-motion train.

Yet Bong said his intention with Okja was not to make a polemic about animal rights: "The main purpose of this film is to be beautiful."

Still, he acknowledged being "very concerned and nervous all the time". He worries that the air he breathes is dirty, he said, and that the water he drinks is polluted, and noted that all that anxiety might be rooted in childhood kidney problems and chronic throat infections which left him afraid of water and air.

"I'm quite fine now," he added.

Okja is indeed beautiful; it has been widely likened to the visually luscious work of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese anime great.

But certain parts are, by design, hard to watch.

As research for the film, Bong visited a slaughterhouse in Colorado and the smell from the parking lot - quite a distance from the plant itself - of blood, death, excrement and animal fear almost brought him to his knees.

He watched cows waiting their turn to enter the plant and then watched them being slaughtered, with every bit of their bodies, including faeces - "everything but the squeal", Bong said - put to another use.

"There were times when I wanted to inflict certain psychological pain," he said about the film, "because, in reality, that's what the animals go through."

Swinton, who also worked with Bong on Snowpiercer, said that with Okja, the director succeeded at making a highly entertaining film about something that, along with climate change and the like, people would rather not think about.

"The sort of collective amnesia that we're all encouraged to sort of hold hands on, which is not being awake about what we're putting in our bodies, the way we're treating one another, the way we're treating the planet, that's the thing, really," she noted. "The whole idea of sleepwalking into sort of mindless consumerism."

As for Bong, the trip to the Colorado slaughterhouse made him a vegan for all of two months.

"You know," he said, "South Korea is barbecue paradise."

NYTIMES

•Okja streams on Netflix in Singapore from Wednesday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline 'Making a big pig for small screens'. Print Edition | Subscribe