Drifting with the Current of Memory: Kon-Tiki (2012)

Once upon a time a young school girl, an English language learner in the then British Colony of Hong Kong, had to read an abridged version of the book The Kon-Tiki Expedition written by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. The ESL student was told it was a true story. She was most curious to find out the details of this extraordinary journey of six men on an open raft roughing it on the tumultuous South Seas. But due to her limited English language skills, she had a hard time comprehending the details of the adventure Heyerdahl described.

Now decades later, as soon as she knows that a movie by the name of Kon-Tiki is showing on the big screen, her long tucked-away curiosity is unleashed. Now she finally has a chance to find out what this sea voyage is all about. Here are the ripples.

Norwegian ethnologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl embarked on The Kon Tiki expedition in 1947 to prove his own theory that the Polynesian Islands on the Pacific Ocean were first colonized by people from Peru in South America some 1,500 years ago, and not those of nearby Asian countries as generally thought. Heyerdahl and five other men built a raft with balsa wood, using ropes and technology of pre-Columbian times, and set sail on it by letting it drift with the current from Peru, just to prove the feasibility of such a journey. Only one of the men had had some navigation experience, and, we found out later in the film, Heyerdahl himself could not swim. But in 1947, after a period of 101 days, they succeeded in reaching the Polynesian islands, almost 5,000 miles away. Quite a risky trip to prove a self-propelled theory. Herein was sown the seed of adventure and endurance.

Kon-Tiki (2012)

The film is 2013 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film from Norway. It starts off well by showing a young Heyerdahl as a child in Norway already a risk taker who seeks out the most dangerous feats to perform. The camera works at eliciting interesting human faces with close-ups of a mischievous child growing into a tall, blond hair, blue-eyed, chiselled physique, explorer of the Polynesian Islands. Listening to an aboriginal elder tell their people’s story, Heyerdahl (Norwegian actor Pål Sverre Hagen) is determined to test his theory with his life on the line, against the restrained protest of his wife Liv (Norwegian actress Agnes Kittelsen). More treatment of the conflicts is much wanting here, as enthusiasm of the adventurous husband meets exasperation from his wife and mother of his two boys.

Likewise, while on the rough seas, conflicts and comradeships among the six men seem to give way to tense moments of swashbuckling shark fights. At certain points, scenes from Life of Pi came to mind… the flying fish, the whale circling under the raft, the shark attacks, the sun sinking beneath the horizon. Moments that are aesthetically gratifying in Pi appear to be quite matter-of-fact here. No matter, Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg chose to use a simple and straightforward style to tell their story, nothing philosophical to be pondered as in Pi.

If just to satisfy the curiosity of the once bewildered school girl, the movie suffices. It captures my attention and offers some suspenseful and thrilling scenes, at times reminiscence of yet another movie, Jaws. So, Pi and Jaws, what images the Kon-Tiki movie leaves me with that are its own are basically the six messy blond hair and bearded, muscular (except one), well tanned Norwegian and Swedish men speaking English, and, looking quite similar to each other. Eventually, they see a gull flying in the sky. Spirits are highest at that point, for land is near.

What’s quite effective is the inclusion of what seems to be the archival black and white footages of the original trip well mashed into this modern version. But here’s my disclaimer: Upon this first viewing, I’m not too sure if they are the actual footage, or imitation archival footage. I have tried to find out on Google but to no avail. However, I did find out that all the ocean life of sharks, whales, and fish are CGI, computer generated images… just like in Pi.

It’s also interesting to note that, at the end of the movie when the credits roll, there is a disclaimer stating the movie is fictional and that any relationship to the facts is accidental or coincidental. With this, I as a viewer is at a loss as to the accuracy of the whole storytelling on screen. This points to the value of the actual footage which the real life Thor Heyerdahl shot with his 16mm camera, later edited into a feature film that won the 1951 Academy Awards for Best Documentary.

We know for a fact that they reached their destination, no small feat of survival and endurance that from my childhood memory, was much more detailed even in the abridged ESL version of the book. So, yes, it looks a bit too easy and simplified in this movie. And, the ultimate argument still remains like a hung jury. The fact that they had succeeded in reaching the Polynesian Islands on an open raft all the way from Peru did not prove that the Peruvian had colonized the Islands. The film did not deal with this argument. But, just for satisfying the curiosity of the once young and bewildered English learner, it is a sufficiently entertaining movie. A highly watchable summer beach flick.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


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