By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, May 15 (Yonhap) — In his acclaimed sci-fi thriller “Snowpiercer,” Bong Joon-ho offered a dystopian take on the future of human beings devastated by a man-made environmental calamity.
Four years later, the Korean director returned with a new film imbued with the same potent message against human hubris, this time through the story of a young girl and her best friend — a genetically engineered monstrous animal which is sought by a biotech conglomerate for the solution to a global food shortage.
The sci-fi flick “Okja” will debut at the Cannes Film Festival set for May 17-28 as one of 18 entries in the competitive section. Such a high-profile premiere makes even the veteran filmmaker feel thrilled and scared.
“Some of the world’s most picky fans would gather in a French rural village and see my movies, which makes me feel like a fish in a burning frying pan,” he said during his first news conference to promote the much-anticipated film.
Co-written by Bong and Jon Ronson of “Frank,” Okja follows the girl from a rural town who risks everything to prevent a multinational company from kidnapping the massive animal named Okja.
“Okja is a giant animal that looks like a mix of a pig and a hippo. And there is a girl who loves it. My film portrays their adventure and love,” Bong said of the new film and its title character.
“And there also are many complicated things in the world that disturb their love. It’s a film in which intricate satire elements are intertwined.”
The director said in a making-of video shown during the conference that he began conceiving the idea when he saw a huge wild animal while driving around in 2010.
The film also takes viewers on a long cinematic journey from a remote mountain village in South Korea’s Gangwon Province to New York’s Manhattan, the heart of capitalism, along with the girl named Mija, he said. “Its stages keep changing and that’s why Korean and American producers had to work closely,” he said.
The sci-fi film was produced by three Hollywood studios — Plan B, Lewis Pictures and Kate Street Picture Company — while the U.S. video streaming service Netflix covered the film’s entire budget of US$50 million. It stars Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal of “Nightcrawler” and “Everest,” and Paul Dano of “Love & Mercy” and “12 Years a Slave,” and has Korean actors such as An Seo-hyun, Byun Hee-bong, Choi Woo-shik and Yoon Je-moon among its cast.
Bong expressed strong confidence in Netflix, which gave him full directorial rights as well as the investment.
“We were able to complete the film thanks to our partnership with Netflix,” he said. “Some companies hesitated because of the film’s large budget and some others did so because of the film’s too original and bold story. But Netflix gave us full support without hesitation.”
For a writer-director like himself, the most important factor in choosing a business partner was whether he can have freedom of creation and the final editorial right, he explained.
“I entered the project under the condition that the film would be released at theaters in South Korea, the United States and Britain and especially in a wide scale in Korea… Film distribution is, of course, important but as a writer-director I’m the most interested in creative freedom. Filmmakers are rarely given this much creative freedom for such a big-budget film anywhere in the world unless they are godlike filmmakers like (Steven) Spielberg or (Martin) Scorsese. So I had no reason to hesitate if I was able to control this movie 100 percent,” said Bong.
But he confessed that it was scary, too, since it means he is 100-percent responsible for the outcome.
During the news conference, Netflix unveiled its plan on when and how it will distribute the movie around the world.
Ted Sarandos, Netflix chief content officer, announced that “Okja” will be available on the online platform in 190 countries on June 28 in the U.S., which is June 29 in South Korea. This will be shortly after the film’s premiere at Cannes.
In Korea, the film will become available in theaters in an “open-run” distribution method, according to Kim Woo-taek, chief executive of the movie’s local distributor Next Entertainment World (NEW).
“We reached this conclusion after many discussions to distribute ‘Okja’ in Korea in the most efficient way,” he said.
But he said it’s too early tell in how many theaters the film will be shown in, saying that his company will continue to discuss the matter with theaters right before opening day.