Bong Joon Ho Defends Netflix in Cannes: "They Gave Me Total Freedom"

Okja Photocall Getty - H 2017
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The 'Okja' director was diplomatic in addressing the various controversies surrounding the streaming giant, while Tilda Swinton said "we didn't actually come here for prizes."

Following a rocky rollout but mostly positive reception to his film Okja during its first press screening in Cannes, South Korean filmmaking phenomenon Bong Joon Ho shrugged off the controversy that has swirled around the movie since the 70th edition of the iconic French film festival began on Wednesday.

He said he enjoyed working with Netflix and was happy for jury president Pedro Almodovar to see his movie despite his critical stance on Netflix.

At the start of Okja's debut screening on Friday, the movie was temporarily misframed on the big screen, leading to boos and jeers from the assembled international press corps. Eventually the screening was briefly stopped so that the problem could be fixed and the movie restarted. Cannes organizers later issued a statement taking responsibility for the incident and apologizing to the filmmakers. 

The snafu followed some heat for Okja during the Cannes jury press conference earlier in the week. This year's jury chair, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar, read a prepared statement that suggested he might be preemptively excluding the film from consideration for the Palme d'Or, due to Netflix's involvement and the streaming giant's plans to release the movie online in most markets. 

"I personally don’t perceive the Palme d’Or [should be] given to a film that is then not seen on the big screen," he said. "All this doesn’t mean that I am not open or [don't] celebrate new technologies and opportunities, but [as long as] I'm alive I’ll be fighting for the capacity of hypnosis of the large screen for the viewer."

"I'm just very happy that he will watch this movie tonight," Bong said in the film's press conference. "I'm fine, he can say anything. In fact, I'm a huge fan of Pedro Almovodar, so that the fact that he talks about this film, whether in glowing terms or otherwise, [means] I'm happy."

About Netflix, Bong said: "They gave me great support. The budget of the film was considerable, and a budget of this size is rare for filmmakers," he said. "In fact, I loved working with Netflix, they gave me total freedom, in terms of the casting, shooting and editing. They put no pressure on me. There were no restrictions on their part. It was a wonderful experience."

Okja star Tilda Swinton, who has been on two Cannes juries, said about the Almodovar comments: "It's a statement that the president made, and it's really important that the president feels free to make whatever statement he or she wants to make."

She added: "But the truth is we didn't actually come here for prizes, we came her to show this film And it is true that we get the wonderful privilege to show this film on this screen. I think it's an enormous and really interesting conversation that's just beginning. But what I really think is that there is room for everyone."

About the streaming giant, the actress said: "Netflix has given Bong the freedom with this film to make his absolutely liberated vision and for that I'm so grateful."

This year's Cannes festival has become something of a high-stakes moment for Netflix, which has two titles in the competition lineup (Bong’s Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories from Noah Baumbach).

Netflix has long craved the prestige of major film festival and awards season honors, but cinema purists have pushed back, saying the streaming giant's inclusion in an event like Cannes sets a dangerous precedent, since the company's films are primarily distributed online rather than on the big screen. 

Festival organizers last week unveiled a new requirement for competition films to have traditional theatrical distribution in French theaters after the French Cinema Federation (FNCF) objected to the inclusion of two Netflix films in Cannes' official selection. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings hit back with a post on Facebook, saying: "The establishment [is] closing ranks against us."

Written by Bong and Jon Ronson (Frank), Okja follows Mija, a young girl who must risk everything to prevent a powerful multinational company from kidnapping her best friend, a massive animal named Okja. South Korean actress Seohyun Ahn, who was cast by Bong through an extensive series of auditions, plays the lead role, while Swinton co-stars as the corporate villain.

Jake Gyllenhaal, who also stars in the film, used the press conference to weigh in on latest political developments in the U.S. "I also really just want to add that I'm very excited about the appointment of Robert Mueller," he said in reference to the former FBI director who was this week appointed by the Justice Department as special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Gyllenhaal also said that now was "a great time" for the film's environmental message.