Netflix film brings thrill, controversy to Cannes

A poster for the Netflix movie “Okja” in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, is displayed on the Croisette. (Reuters photo)

CANNES – The central debate of Cannes Film Festival 2017 is one that concerns us all: TV or theatres? For the first time, Cannes picked two films produced by Netflix, the stream service giant, into its elite Competition section. That proved controversial, as on the one side people herald the progressive decision of Cannes to embrace a new viewing platform, while the other are incensed at Netflix’s refusal to release the films in traditional cinemas before putting them on television — a disruption to the sacredness and business model, as the French sees it, of movie distribution.

One of the two Netflix films has already screened: Okja, a fantasy adventure involving super-pig directed by Korean filmmaker Bong Joonho and starring Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ahn Seo-hyun. At the press screening on Friday, some people booed (playfully, I’d say) when the Netflix logo came up on the screen. Then it got worse: there was a technical error and the frame was cropped in a wrong ratio, and the booing went raucous. It took over five minutes before the projectionists stopped the film to readjust – long enough for conspiracy theory fans to suspect that it was a sabotage attempt against Netflix. (It was not, as the festival explained).

The film itself, however, should dispel all the bad press. Though not Bong’s best work, Okja is a satisfying romp, a wild ride in eco-adventure, animal sentimentalism and capitalism bashing. Parodying the excess of corporate culture and Western activism, the film is at heart an E.T-like adventure when a rural girl sets out to retrieve her beloved monster-pet taken from her home by mad scientist and evil executives. Okja can be super-bright, super-loud and over-confident — Korean filmmaking at its proudest! — and yet it’s held together by pure skill and that relentless determination to entertain.

The conceit is rather innovative. A giant agrochemical company (you have one in every country) claims they’ve discovered a new species of super-pig and distributed them to farmers in several countries to raise them in a 10-year-long contest to find the best specimen. The super-pigs, they claim, will cure the world’s food shortage in the future (sorry Muslims and Jews).

Okja of the title is the name of the super-pig — it looks like a cross between a hippopotamus, a pig and a dog — raised by Mija, a girl in a mountain village of Korea. They bond, like in Disney movies, and when it’s time for Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) to take the creature to New York, plucky Mija sets out with the intention to save her cute friend from the abattoir. Her journey takes her into contact with an animal rights group made up of overzealous young white people who want to expose the biological misconducts of the company ruled by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) and the massive GMO scheme of the food industry.

Director Bong Joon-ho made some of Korea’s best films in the past 15 years, including the monster flick The Host and the crime noir Memories of Murder. He made the sci-fi adventure Snowpiercer four years ago with Tilda Winton, Ed Harris and Chris Evans. And now he shows us again how to fit stylized Korean filmmaking into the international marketplace, keeping the Korean signature but with a larger, mass-market appeal. The Netflix debate will continue, and it’s true that a film like Okja is best seen on the cinema screen — the wild havoc of Okja on the streets of Seoul and Manhattan is worth seeing large — but for now, there’s every reason to look forward to the film when it opens in your Netflix account in late June.