Dam­age done by com­merce

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Showbiz - By JUSTIN CHANG

WHEN it pre­miered in May at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, Bong Joonho’s Okja was one of two Net­flix ti­tles, the other be­ing Noah Baum­bach’s The Meyerowitz Sto­ries (New and Se­lected), slot­ted in the pres­ti­gious main com­pe­ti­tion.

It was a long-over­due honour for Bong, given that two of his ear­lier films, The Host (2006) and Mother (2009), drew raves at Cannes de­spite hav­ing pre­miered in non­com­pet­i­tive slots.

But the in­clu­sion of Net­flix, which man­dates its orig­i­nal films de­but on its ser­vice si­mul­ta­ne­ous with any theatri­cal re­lease, in com­pe­ti­tion caused an up­roar among French ex­hibitors, which en­force a strict three-year win­dow be­tween a film’s theatri­cal re­lease and its stream­ing avail­abil­ity, and among fes­ti­val ob­servers who claim that stream­ing ser­vices pose an ex­is­ten­tial threat to cinema.

Cannes of­fi­cials re­sponded by declar­ing that, start­ing in 2018, only films with French theatri­cal dis­tri­bu­tion would be al­lowed to com­pete – a rule that will likely leave Net­flix ti­tles out of the run­ning for the Palme d’Or and other fes­ti­val prizes.

Be­cause of its more tra­di­tional, theatri­cal-based dis­tri­bu­tion model, Ama­zon Stu­dios, Net­flix’s chief ri­val in the dig­i­tal cinema sphere, will likely be un­af­fected by the rule change. Ama­zon was in com­pe­ti­tion at Cannes re­cently with Todd Haynes’ Won­der­struck and Lynne Ram­say’s You Were Never Re­ally Here, which won two awards.

Okja may have been al­lowed to re­main in com­pe­ti­tion, but in some ways the dam­age was done. The Cannes-ver­sus-Net­flix nar­ra­tive dom­i­nated fes­ti­val head­lines for days, even spurring a po­lite but very pub­lic dis­agree­ment at a news con­fer­ence be­tween Pedro Almod­ovar, the pres­i­dent of the com­pe­ti­tion jury, and Will Smith, a fel­low juror. (Smith, who de­fended Net­flix as “an ab­so­lute ben­e­fit,” is star­ring in the com­pany’s up­com­ing fan­tasy thriller Bright.)

An early tech­ni­cal glitch at Okja’s first screen­ing drew jeers, and in the end, de­spite largely favourable re­views, the film left town with­out a prize.

When I met with Bong in Cannes sev­eral days after the Okja pre­miere, he flashed a tired but char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ge­nial smile. One could sense his ex­haus­tion at hav­ing to de­fend his dis­trib­u­tor rather than to ad­dress the story and themes in his movie.

“Dis­tri­bu­tion should be dealt with by the peo­ple who make the rules and reg­u­la­tions,” he said. “The di­rec­tors are the peo­ple who make the films.”

Okja fol­lows a 13-year-old Korean girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), in her quest to save a ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied “su­per pig” named Okja from be­ing chewed up by the forces of 21st cen­tury global cap­i­tal­ism. By turns thrillingly in­ven­tive and po­lit­i­cally gutsy, the movie also has an emo­tional core that harks back to clas­sic chil­dren’s movies, at times sug­gest­ing an ac­tion-ad­ven­ture mash-up of Free Willy, Char­lotte’s Web and Soy­lent Green.

It also plays like a com­pan­ion piece to Bong’s 2006 film, The Host, an­other crea­ture fea­ture wrapped in a satir­i­cal warn­ing about man’s de­struc­tive ef­fect on his en­vi­ron­ment. – Los An­ge­les Times/Tri­bune News Ser­vice


Di­rec­tor Bong (left) with his Okja cast Swin­ton (cen­tre) and Jake Gyl­len­haal at the 70th Cannes Film Fes­ti­val in France.

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