Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language

If sharks were camels and the Pacific was a desert, the Norwegian adventure “Kon-Tiki” could be “Lawrence of Arabia.” It has a dashing blond hero with penetrating blue eyes. And it has the kind of sweep and polish that David Lean — and Hollywood — would happily embrace.

But “Kon-Tiki” is just one of a number of contenders this season that boast not only the gravitas usually associated with the foreign-language film Oscar — like last year’s Iranian winner, “A Separation,” for instance, or this year’s Austrian submission, “Amour” — but also the luster of a studio epic. Chen Kaige’s “Caught in the Web,” the Chinese entry, is a cutting-edge parable about cyber-bullying that plays out against a slickly edited, upscale Beijing. Denmark’s “A Royal Affair” boasts the lush textures of a ’40s period melodrama. In Iceland’s “The Deep,” helmer Baltasar Kormakur, equally in demand in Hollywood, turns the North Atlantic into his soundstage. And except for some political incorrectness and a French accent, “The Intouchables” might have starred Bradley Cooper and Chris Tucker.

Cheaper, accessible technology, and a smaller planet, account for some of the changes in a category usually associated more with grit than gloss. As “Kon-Tiki” co-helmer Espen Sandberg says, producer Jeremy Thomas owned the rights to the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 story — about retracing the path of ancient Peruvians to Polynesia aboard a balsa-wood raft — and had wanted to make the movie for years.

“It was always going to be a very expensive movie to make,” Sandberg says, “but now the price of CGI has come down. Also, I think he wanted to bring the movie home, so to speak; we could do it in Norway for a considerably lower price.”

Sandberg’s co-director, Joachim Ronning, adds Thomas had seen “Max Manus,” their 2008 World War II action-thriller, “and realized that it was possible to make big, epic movies in Scandinavia.”

“Kon-Tiki” is a movie with 24 financiers, a $15 million budget (“one of the biggest ever in Scandinavia,” per Ronning) and 500 special-effects shots.

“The Deep,” another water-borne feature, was shot right out in the North Atlantic, where its story — the 1984 sinking of the fishing trawler Breki and the superhuman survival of one of its crew — had played out in real life.

“It’s a bruise on the national soul, which is one of the reasons I wanted tell this story,” Kormakur says. “Throughout the history of Iceland, men have been lost at sea; every family in Iceland is connected to that kind of story.” Which meant he felt a need to tell it in the most authentic way possible.

But with a $3 million budget, you can’t make “Life of Pi.”

“That film works because it’s magical realism or whatever you want to call that,” says Kormakur, who adds he’s been influenced by Russian cinema, Michael Mann and “early-to-middle Soderbergh.” “But you need $100 million just to create that sea.” With 80% of Icelanders living near the water, Kormakur’s principal audience was going to know what the real ocean looks like — so he had to sink a real boat, and get in the water alongside his principal actor Olafur Darri Olafsson.

“It was really crazy,” he says. “There’s footage of us swimming together.”

Kormakur’s 2012 Hollywood film, “Contraband,” with Mark Wahlberg, took place partly on water, but he adds that even with a budget of $25 million there was a certain amount of corner-cutting. “When I shoot in my own country, I’m more in control,” he says. “At the end of the day, the filmmaking is pretty much the same but there’s not an insurance company in the world that would have let us shoot the way we shot ‘The Deep.’ ”

For both Kormakur and the “Kon-Tiki” team — who claim not just David Lean but “Apollo 13″ as influences on their film — national pride was a factor in making their effort as epic as they could manage.

Likewise Chen, who after having made a number of Chinese costume dramas that pulled out all the stops on production design, has now turned his taste for sumptuous detail toward a contemporary subject. “I think production values are very important,” he says, “but even if people say, ‘Oh, this is so beautiful,’ under the surface of the story there is something important to China.”

He says something about the phenomenon of Internet bullying — the plot of “Caught in the Web” involves an innocent young woman persecuted by self-righteous “journalists” — taps into something intrinsically, troublingly Chinese. “During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao used the majority of people to persecute minorities,” he says. “This is almost same thing. And it becomes entertainment.”‘

At the same time, of course, an Internet-themed movie should dissolve national borders as easily as the Internet itself. Which isn’t as simple a proposition as it sounds.

“There are two very different markets you have to serve,” says Kormakur. “In the case of ‘The Deep,’ because of the people involved, the talent and the real lives of people who died, I wanted to make the most honest film I could. And sometimes that’s the best way to go: Just make the best version of the film you can.”

At the same time, adds Kormakur, the balance is off between U.S. film importing/exporting and that affects how movies travel. “In Europe, it’s common to say Hollywood makes hamburgers, but I think it’s a generalization,” he says. “Here, we only see about 5% of European film; in Europe we see 90% of American film, the whole scale. The good and the bad.”

The upshot is that, for all the “progress” in production values evident in this year’s crop of imports, there’s a trade-off to be had: Viewers want a film from Iceland — or Norway, or China — to retain some terroir, as the wine connoisseurs would say. “If you make a film too American, it won’t travel,” Kormakur says. “It will have no life outside of its own country.”

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language
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