The Cannes Film Festival’s festering Netflix drama took a new turn on Friday with the troubled press screening of Bong Joon-ho’s gentle monster movie “Okja”, while Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó had a shot at levitation but failed to take off.
It seems Cannes’ splitting Netflix headache just won’t go away. The world’s most prestigious film festival kicked off a very French fracas last month by including the streaming upstart in the race for the Palme d’Or. Pressed by furious exhibitors, it has since scrambled to talk tough, warning Netflix that it must allow its productions on the big screen – where films are meant to be shown. But when it proceeded to show how at Friday’s press screening, the result was an embarrassing fiasco: Tilda Swinton’s head chopped off, a deafening chorus of jeers and boos, and a forced interruption 10-minutes into the film, in the hallowed Grand Théâtre Lumière, of all places. Own goals don’t get much more spectacular than that.
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It turns out the festival staff had failed to raise the curtain properly, cutting off the top and bottom sections of the print. After a 15-minute interruption, Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” was restarted in the right format, thus giving the audience a chance to twice boo the Netflix logo. Organisers promptly offered their “deep apologies” to the film’s crew and producers, as well as the audience, adding that the incident was “completely due to the technical staff of the festival”. But by then, rumours of a conspiracy to sabotage the Netflix screening had spread like wildfire in the theatre and on social media.
There is a more literal shit storm in the film itself, along with the flatulence, unsubtle jokes, and riveting action scenes required of Korean police procedurals. But Bong Joon-ho’s latest work has a lot more too. It is playful, endearing and deeply political, a gentle monster movie with a Roald Dahl-like quality, so lavish in its digital effects and real-life imagery it is a pity most people will see it on a small screen only.
An Seo-hyun puts in a delightful performance as 13-year-old Mija, a solitary girl who lives with her grandpa in a remote mountain abode in South Korea. Okja, a genetically-modified super-pig that looks like a giant hippo and is cuddlier than a pug, is her only friend and companion. But their idyllic life is shattered when Okja is taken away by the US-based company that designed it, a Monsanto-like conglomerate headed by duelling twins (both played by Swinton). The film follows Mija’s attempts to rescue her friend, with the help of a masked gang of animal welfare activists led by Jay (Paul Dano), who are obsessed with hurting no-one and leaving the smallest possible carbon footprint.
More entertaining than shrewd, “Okja” is a somewhat heavy-handed satire of dynastic corporations that gloss over their unethical practices with pseudo-ethical PR stunts. It features a superb and deliciously comical chase sequence through a Seoul shopping centre, but also a needlessly distracting part for Jake Gyllenhaal as a buffoonish TV celebrity vet. Sweet and brimming with energy, it should be a crowd pleaser for adults and children alike, though the revered director of “Memories of Murder” (2003) has added enough foul language and violence, coupled with a stomach-turning tour of a slaughterhouse, to chase away the youngest.
Bong’s clownesque police are a world apart from the ruthless, trigger-happy cops portrayed in Thursday’s other competition entry, Kornél Mundruczó’s “Jupiter’s Moon”. A visually inventive oddity, it stars stage actor Zsombor Jéger as Aryan, a Syrian refugee who finds he can levitate after he’s been shot while trying to cross the border into Hungary. The discovery leads him on a bizarre, rollercoaster adventure with a crooked doctor (played by very poorly dubbed Georgian actor Merab Ninidze) who intends to exploit his supernatural powers for money.
As ambitious as it is uneven, “Jupiter’s Moon” is many things at once. Too many, in fact. In addition to his country’s inhumane response to the refugee crisis, Mundruczó takes on issues of corruption, terrorism, alienation, religion and redemption, with a love story (and already the competition’s umpteenth female nude) thrown in the mix. The overabundance is dizzying and left me struggling to figure out exactly what the filmmaker is trying to say.
It’s a shame, because the film offers an abundance of the breathtaking sequence shots on show in Mundruczó’s previous work “White Dog”, which won the Un Certain Regard section here in 2014. Once again, credit goes to his masterly cinematographer Marcell Rev, who keeps computer-generated imagery to a minimum even when Aryan soars above the roofs of Budapest. His close-quarters, hand-held camerawork at times reminded me of another Hungarian masterpiece, Lázsló Nemes’s “Son of Saul”. And his work on the breathless opening scene of desperate migrants sprinting through a forest is an absolute gem.