Reviews

'Kon-Tiki' Is a Rousing Adventure Reminiscent of Classic Hollywood

Visually and thematically, Kon-Tiki is similar to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.


Kon-Tiki

Director: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Cast: Pal Sverre Hagen, Odd Magnus Williamson
Distributor: Anchor Bay
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2013-08-27

Movies are America’s biggest export; the money earned from the royalties, distribution and merchandise of American films could easily help fund a small nation, but besides the monetary value, they have helped cement the United States as a never ending source of cultural ideas. However, although we usually see American movies that try to emulate European or Asian aesthetics, it’s quite rare to see filmmakers from those continents interested in crafting projects that look like a Hollywood movie, yet this is precisely what happens with Kon-Tiki. From its production values, to its casting and musical score, the film seems intent on recreating the rousing spirit of adventure films from Hollywood’s Golden Age and this makes it quite the little gem.

Based on a true story, the film directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, recreates the expedition undertaken by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) in 1947, as he crossed the Pacific Ocean -- from Peru to the Polynesian Islands -- in order to prove his theory that Polynesians had not arrived from Asia as originally thought, but from South America. If the journey itself wasn’t remarkable for its bravura, Heyerdahl also did this using a boat made out of balsawood and propelled only by a single sail, which he named 'Kon-Tiki' after the Inca sun-god, Viracocha. He was trying to recreate the exact same journey he believed these ancient civilizations had trekked.

The film plays out like a '50s-era adventure film, complete with flashbacks showing us a pint sized Heyderdahl defying his friends by jumping into a frozen lake, later living with his wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen) in the Marquesas Islands where he first heard the theory about westbound immigration and later trying to fund his expedition by traveling to New York City, wonderfully imagined and recreated as something out of King Kong. The filmmakers are wise and don’t take too long before sending us off in the journey, and every scene that occurs before has us feeling like children completely enthralled by what happens onscreen.

Once in Peru, Heyerdahl and his group of Scandinavian sailors, including radio experts Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann) and Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro), engineer and boat co-designer Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), expert seaman Erik Hesselberg (Odd Magnus Williamson) and sociologist Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgård), board the strange raft as the whole world believes them to be insane. You know how the story goes… we follow them through the journey as they encounter sharks, severe sunburns and storms, bouts of insanity and even whale sightings.

The real life journey which lasted slightly over one hundred days is efficiently put together -- with obvious dramatic flourishes -- to make for two hours of brisk entertainment the likes of which Hollywood has pretty much forgotten how to do. Visually and thematically, the film is similar to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Geir Hartly Andreassen’s cinematography is even similar to the gold and neon maritime palette used by Lee’s DP, but unlike Life of Pi which shoved a flimsy spiritual message down our throats, the beauty of Kon-Tiki is that it knows audiences are smart enough to take from the movie the lessons they want, whether they be historical, anthropological or metaphysical.

The film doesn’t really put emphasis into developing the characters past archetypes related to their jobs but with Hagen at the helm, it’s able to evoke a feeling similar to that of Northwest Passage, a Technicolor extravaganza in which Spencer Tracy played adventurer Major Rogers. Hagen’s good looks (imagine a blonde Jimmy Stewart with Cary Grant’s sex appeal) make him an ideal hero and at the end of the day that’s all we want from Kon-Tiki.

A few years ago the filmmakers directed Max Manus: Man of War, which chronicled the tale of the title Norwegian resistance fighter and Kon-Tiki fulfills the promise offered by that uneven flick: it shows that Hollywood-style movies don’t always have to mean explosions, bikini clad women with one dimensional roles (even in her few scenes in this movie, Liv makes a lasting impression and makes us wish we learned more about her) and an eagerness to please teenage heterosexual males. Rønning and Sandberg have crafted an epic so ambitious that they even shot it in two languages (Norwegian and English) in order to reach a wider international audience. Even if the film doesn’t always succeed, it does for the most part leaving viewers with a huge grin on their faces.

Kon-Tiki is presented in stunning high definition which includes a superb audio transfer. Bonus features are limited to a making of documentary and versions of the film in both languages. It would’ve been interesting to learn more about the real life Heyderdahl, but there’s already a wonderful classic documentary about his journey available for free in services like Hulu. Ideally people will want to see that the second this film is over.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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