Director OK with Okja fuss
Bong Joon Ho sees Netflix controversy as chance to set rules on simultaneous screenings
Internet streaming site Netflix has delivered the death knell to the video rental industry, and several of its self-produced programmes have viewerships that TV broadcasters can only dream of.
So is film their next frontier?
After all, Netflix original movies Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories were invited to compete for the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last month.
Okja's South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, 47, (The Host, The Snowpiercer) and Netflix had wanted the film's online premiere on June 28 to be synced with its release in cinemas in his homeland.
But the country's largest cinema chains, CJ CGV, Lotte Entertainment and Megabox, have refused to screen Okja.
They claim that Netflix is disrupting the local film distribution market by releasing the film online on the same day instead of waiting at least three weeks, which is standard practice in South Korea.
At Okja's press conference at the Four Seasons hotel in Seoul on Wednesday, Bong hoped "new rules" on simultaneous screenings would arise from this episode.
Netflix has given people the opportunity to see films on the big screen, or on the small screen.Actor Giancarlo Esposito
Speaking in Korean, he added: "I don't think Netflix normally pushes exhibitors to simultaneously release their films. I think the problem is that the film arrived before local industries set rules on this."
Okja's Cannes debut was also met with protests.
Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodovar, head of the Cannes Film Festival jury, felt a film that is not shown on the big screen should not get the Palme d'Or.
French rules also dictate that movies cannot be streamed online until three years after their theatrical release and Netflix has ruled out any such release in France.
Okja, a sci-fi action comedy, tells the story of Mija (played by 13-year-old South Korean Ahn Seo Hyun), who journeys from the remote mountains of South Korea to New York to rescue her beloved pet, Okja (described by Bong as a "lovely" creature that is a cross between a pig, manatee, hippo and elephant).
The cast includes British actress Tilda Swinton, who plays twin sisters Nancy and Lucy Mirando who run a biotech conglomerate, which has nefarious plans for Okja.
Korean-American Steven Yuen of The Walking Dead fame plays an animal activist who tries to help Mija, while US actor Jake Gyllenhaal is barely recognisable in his turn as a zany zoologist.
Bong shared his frustrations at a round-table interview with The New Paper on Tuesday.
"Cannes invited the film to the festival so they should have sorted it out with the French theatre association. We are merely the creators, we don't study French laws, so we did not know this was an issue...
"At film festivals, they always want some issues and controversy, so Okja contributed and I'm happy with that," Bong said with a laugh.
For him, working with Netflix was a "joyful experience" because he received creative freedom as well as a US$50 million (S$69 million) budget that would have been "too big for Asian investors to handle".
Swinton and cast member Giancarlo Esposito also weighed in on the tension.
Swinton, 56, dismissed the controversy, arguing that Okja offered the chance of an "important and wonderful conversation" about the inclusion of a Netflix film at the festival.
"Once the film was screened, there was no controversy," she said.
Esposito, 59, said: "No other studio would make this film...
"Netflix has given people the opportunity to see films on the big screen, or on the small screen. It really is serving the filmgoer who has the opportunity to make the choice. This is the way of the future...
"It is growing pains for (theatre owners and distributors) to work out their issues."
But there has been some good news for Okja. It has found a distributor, which has agreed to screen the film at 100 independent cinemas around South Korea, the Korea Times reported on Tuesday.
It will also play on limited screens in select US and UK cinemas.
Bong said: "I understand South Korean multiplexes and their wish for the three-week hold-back time. I understand Netflix too, because the budget (of this film) was provided by subscribers and they shouldn't have to wait to watch it.
"I'm all for streaming, but it was also my innocent wish to screen it in cinemas because we filmed it such that it will look beautiful on the big screen."
Swinton: Acting is playing
Okja's lead actress and co-producer Tilda Swinton saw strands of Europe's refugee camp situation in the emotional final scenes of the film, which featured an animal slaughterhouse.
Speaking to The New Paper at a round-table interview on Tuesday, the 56-year-old also said: "The food industry narrative (in Okja) is in a way a fable for something much deeper. It is about the way in which we act as human beings relating to other beings, but even more so, our fellow human beings... And we can all think of humans who have used other humans in the way the humans used Okja (a genetically modified "super pig")."
Director Bong Joon Ho visited a "beef plant" in Colorado to do research for the film and swore off meat for two months as he was haunted by the scents and scenes.
On playing villainous twins, Swinton said: "They are (like) one schizophrenic human... Nancy is more honest. She's bombastic, totally dedicated to business, making deals and depressing people with no shame."
She added with a straight face: "And we know many public people in very powerful positions in the world (who are) now in her club."
For the Oscar winner, acting is "all about dressing up and playing".
"My children (twins Xavier and Honor), they still do it (and) they are 19 now. When they were little, one of them would dress up like a dog and the other as an old lady.
"I mean (it's) fantastic, very often very convincing, and much better than anything I have managed to pull together," said Swinton.
- LINETTE HENG