Bong Joon-ho on Okja & Netflix

Director Bong Joon-ho on genetic modification, Okja and that Netflix controversy

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 23 Jun 2017

“Someone said it’s very difficult to define, this movie. For me, that is the biggest praise.” South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho is speaking of his latest project, but such a query of genre and tonal classification could easily be applied to most of his prior features as a director – from debut Barking Dogs Never Bite to Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother and Snowpiercer. With pretty much all of them, you think you know what you’re going to get based on a glance at the plot synopsis, only for a considerably different beast to emerge during viewing; sometimes multiple different beasts.

Speaking of beasts, Bong’s new film, Okja, has one at its centre: a massive, genetically modified ‘super pig’ named Okja, who is the best friend of young Korean girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). After ten idyllic years of caretaking and companionship on Mija’s grandfather’s farm in the mountains, the multinational conglomerate Mirando Corporation come calling for Okja as part of the finale of a decade-long publicity campaign, spearheaded by image-obsessed CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton).

The super pig is to be shipped off to New York for the big event, but also an eventual fate, alongside others of her kind, as a new delicacy for the food industry. Single-minded in intent, Mija sets out on a rescue mission to bring Okja home, crossing paths with a grotesque celebrity TV vet (Jake Gyllenhaal, channelling Sharlto Copley) and the Animal Liberation Front, led by Jay (Paul Dano), who also wants to save Okja and take down the Mirando Corporation.

“Some people might think that it’s a Disney film or a children’s film at first,” Bong tells us of possible audience expectations, “and later find out it’s very gory and explicit. That might befuddle them quite some bit.” Indeed, though Okja would potentially be fine viewing for older children (the bad language is barely worse than in beloved 80s family classics), its moments of animal cruelty could prove nightmare fuel in a kid. And some adults, too, which seems to have been the intention. “Usually in films, there are two ways that animals are dealt [with],” says Bong. “One is this pet-like animal, and the other category is explicitly showing the slaughtering and butchering of animals. What I wanted to do in this film was merge those two categories together. We can call this movie some kind of adventure, but at the same time, as Thierry Fremaux said at Cannes [where the film had its world premiere], it’s a very political movie at the same time.”

The political element will come back up later, but first we want to ask Bong a little more about the piggy in the middle of his new movie. His 2006 film The Host was centred on a sea monster emerging from Seoul’s Han River and terrorising the local population. With Okja, he’s once again working with a new species created for a film, but the eponymous animal is no outlandish-looking creature of menace. Okja is a cute, shy critter; one whose look seems a plausible evolutionary step for animals already roaming the planet.

We wonder if it’s any more difficult to design a creature of that kind, rather than something in the monster movie mould. “Yeah, the approach is very different,” Bong tells us. “The most important thing about this animal was that she was very innocent and being mistreated. What I wanted from the audience was to question why such an animal, who looks so kind-hearted and innocent, must suffer like this.

Design inspiration for Okja’s expressions came from a somewhat unlikely source: “We adapted the feeling of the face from manatees – it looks very calm and shy and looks introvert. Although manatees live underwater, I could almost imagine them sweating under the water – manatees feel like a person who never really did anything wrong but is always very guilty and sweating in the process.” This is followed by Bong doing an impression of a seemingly guilt-ridden manatee that will remain a personal interviewing highlight for this writer.

Next comes the topic of Okja as a vision of the future in a similar fashion to Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men: a hypothetical, plausible, very near future where the human race will have to face something that is unavoidable – in Okja’s case, the depletion of natural resources for capitalism to exploit. Bong suggests he never actually considered Okja as a sci-fi film, “because maybe in Canada, or the States, they already invented the GM salmon and they’re ready to launch products from these GM salmon. And, as you may know, GM corn has already dominated the world; it’s all over the world. And there’s a certain company that created this GM corn that Mirando is modelled after, although I cannot say it verbally because of legal issues.

“So I do feel like it’s very close to reality,” he elaborates, “so much so that it is now and it is reality. I feel that they’re going to move from GM crops to GM animals. I also, during the filmmaking process, met with people who studied and who experimented with GM animals. So when I was making the film, I expected maybe this kind of thing was going to be a big controversy, but instead of this, Netflix became the controversy. But anyway, it’s good. The worst thing is indifference; I’m happy about all the attention.”

Ah yes, the streaming elephant in the room. Okja is one of Netflix’s bigger titles to date when it comes to features the company is funding alongside distributing. It and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories were the first Netflix titles to be up for the Palme d’Or, but ire from French cinema chains has seen Netflix films barred from main Cannes competition going forward. Thanks to a French law prohibiting films from streaming online for three years after their theatrical release, Netflix has opted not to release any of their original films in French cinemas.

“The problem is me and Noah Baumbach never studied the French law of the theatres,” Bong jokes of the controversy. “Maybe we should have. The people in the government and the legal institutions and the distribution industries, it’s their job to figure that issue out. I think Netflix executives always watch movies on the big screen with their families on the weekend. I think, also, French theatre association people, they all have the Netflix account. We all love watching movies in the theatre, on Netflix, via Amazon, iTunes and cable TV and many things. It just all co-exists. But I do feel they should come up with a proper relationship and the regulations to sort them out.

“As a writer and director,” he continues, “it’s just a very good other option, making movies with Netflix or Amazon. Especially the global directors who want to make films that are a little bit unique. For example, Okja – all the studios hesitated to support this film, finance this. And also some small, independent financiers loved the script a lot but, for them, the budget was too big. This kind of middle-sized budget, unique story movie, supported by Netflix, with 100% creative control – from the beginning they gave me director’s final cut. It’s amazing, I’m so lucky. It’s a great chance for filmmakers like us.”

Okja is available to view on Netflix from 28 Jun, and will also be shown in select Curzon cinemas across the UK

Okja plays at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival on 25 & 28 Jun