Damage done by commerce
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.