Bong Joon-ho on Working With Netflix and the Controversy Over ‘Okja’ at Cannes

Bong Joon-ho
AP Photo/Axel Schmidt

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, whose competition title “Okja” has stirred up controversy between Netflix and the Cannes Film Festival, says the streaming giant imposed only one restriction on him as a filmmaker.

“At first, Darius Khondji, my cinematographer, and I wanted to shoot ‘Okja’ on 35mm, but Netflix insisted that all Netflix originals be shot and archived in 4K,” Bong said in an interview with Variety. “Khondji then figured that we would use Alexa 65, which equates to a 70mm film in digital format. It makes a great cinematic vibe.”

Except for that sole condition, Bong said he had carte blanche.

“Netflix guaranteed my complete freedom in terms of putting together my team and the final cut privilege, which only godlike filmmakers such as Spielberg get,” he said.

“Okja” tells the story of a girl who travels from Korea to Manhattan to prevent a multinational company from kidnapping her best friend, a massive animal named Okja. The cast includes Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The English-language film is one of two Netflix movies chosen to compete at Cannes, along with Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.” Fury from French exhibitors over the selection of films not set for theatrical release caused the festival to issue a new rule that all future competition titles must be destined for French cinemas.

Bong brushes aside the controversy.

“All films are eventually archived in DVDs, Blu-rays and in other digital media after screening in theaters for a while. Considering that as all films’ life cycle, I don’t think making a film backed by Netflix makes much difference for me as a filmmaker,” he said.

Though he boasts a unique cinematic vision, Bong refuses to be regarded as an auteur. “I think such praise is for arthouse masters like Michael Haneke. Rather, I would like to make films that excite the mass audience,” said Bong.

After spending eight years on back-to-back films in English – “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” – Bong hopes to make smaller, less time-consuming, but denser movies. Currently under way are Korean-language “Parasite,” about a family faced with a grave situation, and another English-language one, which Bong describes as being a “100% U.S. production.”

Bong says the boundaries between different countries and production environments have long been erased for him.

“I’ve experienced different levels of international collaboration. For example, I worked with a Japanese musician for ‘Memories of Murder,’ with Australian and New Zealand special-effects teams and a U.S. vfx team for ‘Host,’ then with a daring international cast for ‘Snowpiercer,’” Bong said. “At first, I tried to see the difference between industries, but now it’s all natural for me. It’s the same filmmaking.”