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Bong Joon Ho on controversy at Cannes, Okja and great Australian cinema

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The latest film from the renowned South Korean auteur, Bong Joon Ho, has been caught up in a small and inconsequential discussion. Something about the alleged end of cinema as we know it.

With streaming service providers extending their reach every day, and an increasing number of acclaimed, hitherto cinema-focused directors (like Joon Ho) migrating to the smaller screen, it is a topic that sparks great debate in the movie community. Therefore it was hardly a surprise that when Joon Ho’s Netflix-produced new movie, Okja, arrived at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, controversy followed.

SupportBadgeFirst came reports that the film – an anti-meat movie about a cute giant pig – was greeted with boos at its premiere screening. Later, news that the festival had introduced new measures clamping down on made-for-VOD titles, preventing them from competing without an accompanying theatrical release.

The headline of this story from UK’s The Telegraph sums it up: “Cannes film festival declares war on Netflix in fight for the future of cinema.”

When I raise this subject with Bong Joon Ho, the morning after the final day of this year’s Sydney Film Festival (where Okja screened as the Closing Film feature) I was expecting him to ruminate on being stuck in the middle of a tetchy debate for the film community.

Instead, assisted by a translator, he describes what happened at Cannes as “an entertaining controversy. Me and the Okja team found it very enjoyable to witness. Everybody was talking about Okja. It was Okja, Okja, Okja! I particularly liked the fact that they were talking about the distribution aspect of the film and not the story itself… nobody knew or fathomed what it was actually about.”

Okja’s premise concerns a multinational corporation, led by a Willy Wonka-esque eccentric (played by Tilda Swinton) that genetically engineers a new breed of giant, hippo-sized pigs to carve up and sell worldwide. However, they end up full of personality and super cute. So when the time comes for the titular pig to be turned to bacon, its young owner Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) puts up an epic fight to save it.

“In reality pigs are beautiful and sophisticated, but people associate them with food.”

The small-child-with-a-special-non-human-friend storyline, told with a sense of Spielbergian largesse, evokes familiar memories. Particularly of family fare like ET, The Iron Giant and Pete’s Dragon.

Then Okja gets political. You could argue the film, for reasons best left for audiences to experience first-hand (no spoilers) becomes a full-blown, anti-meat propaganda movie.

“I didn’t have that message in mind when I began the film. It naturally seeped into the story as it progressed,” says Joon Ho. “What initially popped into my mind was the face of this animal. Despite his enormous build, having a very kind and shy face. So I focused on what this meant, having a big size.”

The director continues: “In reality pigs are beautiful and sophisticated, but people associate them with food. This naturally led me to research more books and documentaries about the food industry. I also had lots of discussions with a cousin of mine who worked for an animal rights NGO. Brainwashed!” He says, laughing.

It is no exaggeration to say that Bong Joon Ho, 47 (born in Daegu, South Korea) is among the most interesting filmmakers working today. His films are rooted in genre (“that’s the space I work in”) and both conform to and subvert expectations.

The director’s first English-language feature, 2014’s Snowpiercer, is a world-gone-wrong dystopian story set on a train, the poorest people located at the back and the richest at the front. Mother is a murder mystery crossed with a character study about a distressed, dangerously headstrong parent. The Host (the most commercially successful Korean film in history) is an epic creature feature.

“I think streaming and the theatre already co-exist peacefully.”

Seated in a hotel room adjacent to Sydney’s State Theatre, where Okja screened the evening prior to our interview, I figure it’s fitting to ask whether any Australian-made films have influenced the director’s work.

“When I was studying the cinema at university I watched many Australian films, including the early work of Peter Weir and Jane Campion” Joon Ho says. “But especially The Road Warrior, the second Mad Max movie. I watched it more than 25 times. It has a very peculiar magic that is very, very wild.

“George Miller, Mr Miller, is my hero. A master of movement. I feel the masters of movement are three-fold: Akira Kurosawa, George Miller, Hayao Miyazaki. They are the masters of movement, whether that means the camera or the object or both. They really have it down.”

Our conversation eventually returns to the topic touched on at the beginning of our interview: about the friction between traditional and online film distribution, and the supposed end of cinema as we know it. This time around Joon Ho is philosophic

“I think streaming and the theatre already co-exist peacefully,” he says. “The Netflix CEO and other Netflix people, they visit the multiplexes on the weekend with their family. French theatre association people, they have a French Netflix account. So streaming and visiting the theatre; it already co-exists. All this just means there’s more ways to appreciate a film.”

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Okja will be available to stream on Netflix from June 28. Read our review from the Cannes screening here

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