With the press conference set for April 13th, speculation over the Official Selection of this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival is ramping up. One hotly-anticipated film sure to be jockeying for a slot in the Competition is Bong Joon-ho’s latest monster mash, “Okja.” With Netflix launching the film worldwide on June 28th — and only certain to be receiving a theatrical berth in the United States and Bong’s native South Korea — the timing is right for a splashy premiere. However, it remains to be seen if the choosy festival will make space for the film, as Cannes’ ties to the French film industry run deep and both entities have taken a staunch position against non-theatrical distribution channels.
Vincent Malausa of iconic French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma spoke with the South Korean auteur to peel back some of the mystery enshrouding “Okja,” which stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and child actress Ahn Seo-hyun. Even if Bong doesn’t share plot details that go much further than the synopsis and teaser trailer released a couple weeks back — a young girl’s monstrous companion becomes the target of a multinational corporation headed by Tilda Swinton’s character — he had plenty to share about the film’s production as well as his inspirations and motivations.
Most noteworthy, besides “Okja” being his first collaboration with legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji (“Delicatessen,” “Seven,” “Amour”), is the international dimension of the film, which was shot in Seoul, New York City and Vancouver. The director himself remarks upon the stark contrast to his previous work — “Snowpiercer” takes place almost entirely on a train — and establishes that the film “unfolds on three geographically-distinct levels.”
Bong also clarifies that it was not his ambition to make an English-language film. Instead, he devised the premise — as with “Snowpiercer” — and cast the film accordingly. The segments of the film that involve the girl and the creature Okja are said to not even be dependent on spoken language. With that in mind, the nefarious corporation is certain to expand upon the global theme as it traces a clear line from South Korea to the United States. Arguably, this transnational nature is one of the most genuine qualities of Bong’s developing body of work and far more substantial than the crude token inclusion of Chinese characters in the Marvel canon or fellow creature feature “Kong: Skull Island.”
When challenged to comment on specific influences on “Okja” — a question most filmmakers are reticent to acknowledge — Bong quips, “Maybe pig movies?” and offers the examples of “Babe” and, more promisingly, Hayao Miyazaki’s classic anime “Princess Mononoke.” More interesting is the genesis of the film in the director’s own mind, which he suggests was inspired by a vision he had while driving his car, of “a strange, very big animal in the middle of the road.” This imaginary cross between a pig, a hippopotamus and a manatee became the point of departure for the film. Bong is hasty to clear up that he sees the titular Okja as an animal, not a monster, and its empathetic relationship with Ahn’s character is central to the film.
Also singled out for praise is Na Hong-jin’s international hit from 2016 “The Wailing,” which Bong justly notes as having “the truly crazy energy reminiscent of the Korean films of the early 2000s” (certainly, this writer agrees that the film escalated Na into the hallyu pantheon alongside Bong, Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon). It seems that the the helmer of “The Host” and “Snowpiercer” still has his finger on the pulse of the Korean film industry and indeed is already developing his next project, which he promises will be even stranger than “Okja” and will boast an exclusively Korean cast and crew.
Adventurous cinephiles are encouraged to check out the January 2017 issue of “Cahiers du cinéma” — back issues are now available for sale from their website — for more info on “Okja,” Bong Joon-ho’s following project and other upcoming films. Even if your French isn’t up to par, there are also exclusive storyboards to be found in the magazine.