If there was one truth to come out of the blighted Okja press screening in Cannes two days ago, it was this: for all the am-dram booing of the Netflix logo at the film’s start (and this reporter bore witness to just as much, if not more, cheering for the VOD giant’s Croisette debut), by its end there was only room for jubilant applause. Bong Joon-Ho‘s film, about a genetically-bred “super pig” and the young Korean farm girl determined to keep her best friend out of the abattoir, had won over the stoniest of critics’ hearts and silenced any doubters of Netflix’s feature film ambitions.
Yesterday, on the upper decks of the Carlton, I sat down with Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito, Lily Collins and Steven Yeun to discuss the film’s triumph and salute its disruptive director. You can watch that video above. I also caught up with Ahn Seo-Hyun, the 13-year-old lead of Bong’s film, who spoke through a translator and so sidestepped the filmed interview. She’s already been acting for years, but with Okja she makes a breakthrough so assured that she seems destined to become one of Korea’s biggest names.
How did this role come to you?
Ahn Seo-hyun: I had just finished a TV drama and I wanted to take a rest for a while, but that was when I heard about the open audition for director Bong and Okja. My dad and I thought that maybe before I took that rest, I should meet with the famous director, so my dad, who is also my manager, sent an email to director Bong.
And about two months later, the production company sent me a reply saying that the director wanted to meet up with me, so I was in the mind-set of, oh, let’s just meet the director and see his face in real life. So we went to meet him.
Since it was a first meeting, he actually didn’t speak about Okja for a while, but we met and just had a chitchat. Then eventually, he started talking about Okja and it was a very natural process. I felt that, since the beginning, perhaps the director was treating me as [my character] Mija, even though he never spoke about it.
Your Mija is strong, determined and sweet-natured. What did you make of her?
When I first encountered the character, I felt a lot of empathy and a lot of similarities with myself as Seo-hyun, and I wanted to take on the challenge of her. As soon as I read the role I was really hoping I’d get to play her.
Had you seen Bong’s previous films?
I’d seen a lot of them, even his earlier ones like Barking Dogs Never Bite. I saw The Host and Memories Of Murder. That movie became really famous. It was only after I saw The Host that I realized the director of The Host and Memories Of Murder was the same person, and because The Host had so much detail and was so wonderfully crafted, I was excited to learn it was the same director.
You’re acting in this movie opposite a creature that isn’t physically there on set. But she has such a character in the movie and your scenes together are real interactions. How complicated was that?
It wasn’t as complicated as I thought it would be in the beginning because there was a stuffed animal standing in for Okja. There was a real person inside it, and I think maybe I was able to project my feelings for Okja onto the stuffy and the person operating it. It became a real relationship with that person, like with any other actor. It became a real experience.
What did you make of Okja when you finally saw her in the finished film?
Well, I was so familiar with and fond of the stuffy and the person inside that it was a little unfamiliar when I saw it for the first time. It was a bit like meeting her for the first time.
Because they’re foreign actors, I wasn’t very familiar with their work. When I met them, I was afraid there’d be communication barriers because of the language, but they were wholeheartedly welcoming of me and wanted to be my friend, and so I felt like the heart-to-heart communication overcame the language barriers.
What makes Bong special as a director?
From my perspective, it’s his compassion, his respect and his patience for the actors that makes him really special. It adds to the completeness of the film that he makes.
Would you want to work with Bong again?
It would be such an honor. Any actor that has worked with him would think the same.
Is this your first time in Cannes?
I was in a film in the past that played at Cannes, but this is my first time here and my first main role in a film that was invited to Cannes. It feels like we’ve just wrapped the film and we’re going for a small celebration party.