Cannes 2017 Dispatch 2: 'Okja,' 'Promised Land,' 'The Square' and a bomb scare that rocked the Croisette


Never a dull moment at the French Riviera. Sun is strong, heels are high, people are loud and line-cutters are annoying. And every day seems to bring another headline. First came the technical problems that unfolded before the premiere of Bong Joon-ho’s Okja. Many loud and widely reported boos and hisses later (which apparently started as soon as the Netflix logo appeared onscreen), the cranky press crowd at Friday’s ungodly 8:30 am screening were shown the film with a crucial 20-minute delay (which can, you know, throw off an entire day’s schedule at a film festival.) Then came Saturday’s bomb scare while hundreds of people were waiting to be let in to see Oscar-winner Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist follow-up Redoubtable on the life and marriage of Jean-Luc Godard. After a chaotic scene caused by a suspicious bag found at the Debussy theater, during which we were asked to move far from the queue barricades, we were eventually let in the theatre, with an over 30-minute delay. 

I wasn’t at the first Okja screening on Friday, but attended Saturday’s repeat, and witnessed the Netflix logo receiving a round of applause, no doubt in response to Friday’s bad behavior. And here at Cannes, this divide is still dominating the conversations, for better or worse. At the film’s press conference, the team predictably received questions on the topic and came to Netflix’s defense. “I loved working with Netflix,” said Bong Joon-ho. “They gave me total freedom for casting, shooting and editing. They put no pressure on me. It was a wonderful experience.” He continued, “I’m just very happy that [Pedro Almodóvar] will watch this movie tonight. I’m a huge fan, so that he talks about this film, whether in glowing terms or otherwise, [makes me] happy.” Swinton put her support behind it too and touched upon Almodóvar’s remarks from the opening day press conference. “The truth is, we didn’t actually come here for prizes, we came here to show this film,” Swinton said. “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.”

Look no further than the lineup here to believe in the philosophy behind Swinton’s comments. From Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s slightly underpowered but worthwhile and timely gender identity drama They to Songs My Brothers Taught Me director Chloé Zhao’s lyrical The Rider, in which she follows the somber, challenging lives of real-life cowboys with the kind of empathy and heartbreaking truthfulness that recalls the films of Kelly Reichardt, there is truly something for everyone in Cannes. And there was also A Man of Integrity from Iran’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn director Mohammad Rasoulof. A steadily darkening family drama that unfolds within a macho scheme of corruption, the film perhaps falls short of greatness by slightly abandoning some of its intriguing side stories and characters. Yet, it still resonates with an assured storytelling and sophisticated cinematic language.

Here are a few more films that made a splash at the festival’s 70th edition, in addition to the ones I reviewed in my previous dispatch:

Okja (Competition)

Enough about the Netflix controversy; let’s finally talk about one of their films competing for the Palme d’Or. With Okja, Bong Joon-ho gives us a Pete’s Dragon-like tale, at least at its start, that gradually turns into a statement on corporate greed and animal rights, while openly promoting vegetarianism. We’re at an undefined time, where the evil Mirando Corporation (that rings a bit of WALL-E’s Buy-N-Large Corporation) genetically engineers what they call super pigs (a gigantic pig that looks like a cross between a hippo and a pit bull), with the intention of turning them into profitable supermarket products in 10 years' time. Twenty-six of the first batch of super pigs are sent to local farmers around the world to be raised organically under their care. One such super pig is Okja, raised by the young Mija (the instantly lovable young actress An Seo-hyun) and her farmer father in the mountains. Mija and Okja spend their days lazing around, fishing (Okja has her special methods) and basically living a healthy, carefree life. But then comes the time for Okja to fulfill her mission. Bad news is delivered by the corporation’s mad-eyed scientist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. But after Okja is transported to New York, where Mija follows her despite the odds, the corporation faces the hilariously courteous wrath of a rogue animal rights group (they never hurt people and always apologize during rescuing missions), led by Paul Dano. And at the driver seat for Mirando are not one, but two Tilda Swintons, playing good cop/bad cop. Okja is basically an R-rated kids' movie that remains exciting and engaging enough throughout, with brutal images of animal slaughtering that will both remind the audience of Fast Food Nation and perhaps even convince them to turn vegetarian. It isn’t without imperfections, its fancifulness is a tad over the top at times, but at least this is one film we can call "a blockbuster with a big heart"—a rarity these days.

Promised Land (Special Screenings)

A gifted documentarian and an evidently brilliant scholarly thinker on the social justice issues the country has been facing throughout its inception, Eugene Jarecki embarks upon a frankly ballsy journey with Promised Land. He sets out, one interview at a time, to chart how American icon Elvis Presley’s rise-and-fall in his life and career has eerie parallels to that thing we call the American Dream, long gone and dead according to Jarecki’s several interviewees. Here’s the wild part, however: All these interviews are conducted in Elvis Presley’s actual Rolls Royce Phantom V, which Jarecki drives across the country. It’s a mystery how the car is in his possession, but if this isn’t among the best props used in a contemporary film, I don’t know what is. Jarecki fills the backseat and the passenger seat with any and all: We get to listen to wonderful Southern music groups and hear words of wisdom from celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, Ethan Hawke, Alec Baldwin and Mike Myers. At one point, one of his talking heads says he doesn’t quite think Jarecki knows what kind of film he is making. This is both true to a degree, and why Promised Land works as well as it does. In chronicling Elvis’ life starting all the way from Tupelo, MS (some truly stunning archival footage frequently aids and charges the film), you get the sense that Jarecki is building his thesis on the subject as he goes along. And he hits the jackpot in more ways than one. With Promised Land, in which racism and cultural appropriation in American culture get dissected without any minced words or sugar-coating, he makes a compelling case that the system that once made Elvis a King only to bring him down later is also responsible in creating and crowning Donald Trump. Jarecki’s film clearly needs trimming: In its final act, the use of archival footage and an overdose of cultural imagery rapidly piling up on the screen overwhelms the filmmaker’s thesis and feels like free-association writing of sorts. And one wishes he interviewed more women too (this becomes an unignorable shortcoming as the film goes along) as well as toned down his Bernie fetishization. But nonetheless, this is one stunning, wild and essentially unique political essay by a filmmaker with a lot to say.

The Square (Competition)

Leave it to the writer-director of Force Majeure, in which he ingeniously satirized both the idea of masculinity and the way society perceives and engages with it, to pick a beef with humanity at large. Not that Force Majeure wasn’t about more than the idea of masculinity—it was a sharp examination of modern marriages, too. But The Square is a much bigger satirical gamble with a broader agenda for the filmmaker, and it’s a lot tougher to pin down. We follow Christian (Claes Bang), the well-groomed, elegant director of a modern art museum in Stockholm. When he decides to install a new exhibition in town called “the Square” –a literally square-shaped space in which people have to accept all humans are equal and behave respectfully and honestly in accordance—his troubles snowball and spread across various parties in town (a journalist played by Elizabeth Moss, among them) like wildfire. From his previous work, we already know Ruben Östlund has a phenomenally calibrated internal bullshit detector. With The Square, he fiercely critiques modern forms of media (wait until you see the infuriating, click-bait viral campaign the museum’s PR people assemble to promote Christian’s art installation) and challenges the legitimacy of certain types of modern art to often-hilarious effect. But what he really does is put people in situations—odd, maddening, unsettling, upsetting, uproarious and at times surreal nail-biters—where individuals either ignore the right thing to do entirely or go with groupthink like sheep. In that, The Square oftentimes feels like a collection of ingenious vignettes as opposed to a single film. But this is not a bad thing. Östlund skillfully ties his many ideas together and makes his statement in the end: Humankind has been losing many of its defining qualities; trust and dependability being chief among them. His film is this year’s Toni Erdmann in more ways than one: a unique sense of humor reigns over The Square’s long running time that simply flies by, even on less than four hours of sleep. What could possibly be a higher compliment?

I will save my review of Michel Hazanavicius’ Redoubtable for my next dispatch, along with Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories. Also look for some highlights from the Netflix party, which will be taking place tonight at a private villa. Film Journal will be on the scene.