CANNES — It was quite a Friday debut for Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja,” one of two Netflix titles that have been at a center of controversy over the fact neither title will be released in French cinemas despite being selected for competition at the 70th Festival de Cannes (the other being Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories”).
As expected, much of the European media booed when the Netflix title card appeared before the film at its first press screening, but things didn’t die down when the movie began. It was immediately obvious that the theater had set up the wrong screen size for the film’s aspect ratio. This caused a cascading number of catcalls and then a round of clapping to try to get the projector’s attention. It took eight minutes before the screening stopped. After a short break, the problem was fixed and the movie was projected in the manner it was originally intended.
Less than 30 minutes after the screening Joon-ho and his cast including Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins, Paul Dano and Steven Yeun took part in the film’s official festival press conference. Needless to say, it was certainly more tense than any of the participants might have hoped. Just two days earlier, Grand Jury president Pedro Almodovar insinuated that he would not consider any Netflix films for the Palme d’Or inflaming an already raw controversy.
Swinton, who has served on two Cannes juries, respected Almodovar’s right to make such a statement, but was clearly perturbed that the people who made the film itself, not the distributor, were being penalized.
“As someone who has sat on many juries, it is a task to immediately noble some people who have been invited to the party, but the truth is we didn’t come here for prizes,” Swinton said. “We came here to show this film to the Cannes Film Festival and to people who have gathered here from all over the world. And it is true we get the wonderful opportunity and privilege to screen or film on that screen. That’s part of the thrill of bringing a film to Cannes. I think it’s an enormous and interesting conversation that is beginning, but the truth is if you want to know what I really think? I think as in many matters there is room for everybody.”
Joon-ho seemed less bothered adding, “I’m just very happy he will watch this movie tonight. He can say anything. I’m fine. In fact, I’m a huge fan of Pedro Almodovar. Whatever happens, the mere fact he talks about it in glowing or negative terms is fine for me.”
The subject of Netflix’s involvement once again came brought up by a member of the press a few minutes later and Swinton clearly wasn’t finished highlighting the potential hypocrisy of those campaigning against the two films non-theatrical release outside of the U.S. and South Korea, among other countries.
“Let’s be honest. There are thousands of films that are screened in Cannes film festival that we never see in the cinema,” Swinton said. “The most beautiful and most esoteric films that people never see in the cinema. It’s all an evolutionary process and Netflix have given Bong Joon-ho the chance to make his most liberated vision a reality. And for that, I am so grateful.”
“I loved working with Netflix they gave me great support,” Joon-ho said. “The budget for the film is considerable. Giving such a budget to a director isn’t very common and I had total liberty. It was a wonderful experience. I’m saying that in terms of the shooting and the editing. They never intervened. They respected me from the beginning until the end. Quite frankly they gave me total freedom and liberty. No pressures on me. No restrictions on their part.”
Eventually, the topic of the morning’s problematic screening was brought up and the inevitable and ridiculous idea that it was a conspiracy to hurt the film’s reception at the festival.
“It was the ALF, I guess,” Gyllenhaal said referring to the radical group the Animal Liberation Front who are featured in the movie.
After a round of laughter, Joon-ho added, “I also thought it was this Animal Liberation Front. During a festival there of course may be technical problems. You [got to watch] the opening sequence twice. So many educational elements. I love it.”
“Okja” is available on Netflix and in limited release on June 28.