A Maverick Director, His Big Pig and the Small Screen


With “Okja,” Mr. Bong said, with the help of a translator, the studios the story was pitched to had seemed more or less onboard — at least until it came to that last bit.

“For the studios, the recurring questions was, ‘Are you going to keep the slaughterhouse scene?’” Mr. Bong said. “They saw a girl and beautiful animals. They wanted something like Disney. But Netflix, they gave me 100 percent freedom to do whatever I wanted.” (Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, is also a producing partner.)

Floppy haired and youthful at 47, Mr. Bong met to chat with The New York Times with his translator and Mr. Ronson in a 38th-floor corner room at the Mandarin Oriental by Central Park, with Midtown’s mash-up of stately old buildings and heaven-scraping new towers looming outside. The news conference and junket — which entails having reporters hop from one hotel room to the next to interview the movie’s principals for scant minutes as publicists count down the time — were to be held the next day.

It was, in other words, a traditional movie rollout for a film that is having an untraditional, if increasingly common, release. “Okja” will open on just three screens in the United States on Wednesday, June 28, the same day as its streaming debut. This “day and date” release, as it is known, is prohibited in France, where three years must elapse before a film that hits French theaters is allowed to appear online. It was a rule that Netflix executives could not stomach. Meanwhile, in South Korea, where Mr. Bong is a star, the three top cinema chains have threatened to boycott the film unless Netflix delays streaming it there.

Mr. Bong said that he regrets that “Okja” is getting such limited cinema showings but that nowadays theatrical releases account for a short part of a film’s life span. There was also the matter of creative control. His 2014 film, the dystopian thriller “Snowpiercer,” narrowly avoided studio-mandated editing; its American distributor, the Weinstein Company, wanted to shave off 20 minutes, and backed down only after test audiences responded more favorably to Mr. Bong’s cut. (Harvey Weinstein came under fire for giving the film a very limited theatrical release). “These new providers,” Mr. Bong said, “are a new and fresh opportunity.”

The idea for “Okja” started, he said, when the image of a large, ungainly animal with a sad face popped into his head. He began wondering why this animal was melancholy and about who might harm it, and then about humanity’s “Sophie’s Choice”-esque predilection for deeming some animals edible and other animals pets.

Photo

Tilda Swinton, left, and An Seo Hyun in “Okja.”

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Barry Wetcher/Netflix

Mr. Ronson, a journalist and author who also was a writer on the indie movie “Frank,” said that for him, “Okja” was about cognitive dissonance. “To eat the meat,” he said, “you have to ignore the slaughterhouse.”

Okja is technically a pig but also shares her lineage with hippos, elephants and manatees, the gentle sea cows that largely inspired her not-very-porcine face. While there are abattoir scenes, and no shortage of heartache, much of the film is madcap and light, and shot through with Mr. Bong’s wry humor. The Animal Liberation Front, a Three Stooges-like crew led by Mr. Dano, includes an attenuated young man so anguished about humanity’s carbon footprint that he refuses to eat. Ms. Swinton’s chief executive spends a good chunk of the film speaking through a mouthful of braces. Mr. Gyllenhaal’s bug-eyed zoologist is a certifiable nut.

The story line also hews to a socially conscientious thread that runs through Mr. Bong’s previous work. In his 2007 film “The Host,” a heavily polluted river yields up a monster. “Snowpiercer,” which was based on a graphic novel, is about the last human survivors of a climate change experiment gone catastrophically wrong, living in Dickensian privation on a socially stratified, perpetual-motion train.

Yet Mr. Bong said his intention with “Okja” was not to make a polemic about animal rights: “The main purpose of this film is to be beautiful.”

Still, he acknowledged being “very concerned and nervous all the time.” He worries that the air he breathes is dirty, he said, and that the water he drinks is polluted, and says all that anxiety might be rooted in childhood kidney problems and chronic throat infections that left him afraid of water and air. “I’m quite fine now,” he said.

“Okja” is indeed beautiful; it has been widely likened to the visually luscious work of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese anime great whose oeuvre includes “Princess Mononoke.” But certain parts are, by design, hard to watch. As research for the film, Mr. Bong visited a slaughterhouse in Colorado, and the smell from the parking lot — hundreds of feet from the plant itself — of blood, death, excrement and animal fear, almost brought him to his knees. He watched the cows waiting their turn to enter the plant and then watched them being slaughtered inside, with every bit of their bodies, including feces — “everything but the squeal,” Mr. Bong said — put to another use.

“There are times where I wanted to inflict certain psychological pain,” he said, about the film, “because in reality, that’s what the animals go through.”

Still, the film stopped short of making its cast and key players outright vegetarians. Mr. Ronson remains a pescatarian, or, as he put it, “a fish and chipocrit.” An Seo Hyun, who plays Mija, said shooting the slaughterhouse scenes put her off meat, but she has since picked it back up, albeit with greater awareness about where it comes from. Mr. Dano, who first met Mr. Bong years ago, when Mr. Dano was playing in a band and spotted “a large Korean man” dancing around in the audience, said he probably won’t stop eating meat but will want to know more about its origins. Ms. Swinton said she’s an infrequent carnivore, limiting her intake to wild game caught near her home in the Scottish Highlands. “A very luxury position to be in,” she said.

Ms. Swinton, who previously worked with Mr. Bong on “Snowpiercer,” said with “Okja,” Mr. Bong succeeded at making a highly entertaining film about something that, along with climate change and the like, people would rather not think about.

“The sort of collective amnesia that we’re all encouraged to sort of hold hands on, which is not being awake about what we’re putting in our bodies, the way we’re treating each other, the way we’re treating the planet, that’s the thing, really,” Ms. Swinton said. “The whole idea of sleepwalking into sort of mindless consumerism.”

As for Mr. Bong, the trip to the Colorado slaughterhouse made him a vegan for all of two months.

“You know,” he said, “South Korea is barbecue paradise.”

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