In the cold power calculus of Hollywood versus the world, the Montreal-based writer-director Kim Nguyen has an accountant's appreciation of the relative value of a Canadian movie award compared to that of an Oscar. Actually, not even a full Oscar: an Oscar nomination.
Four years ago, his Congo war drama Rebelle (a.k.a. War Witch) took home an impressive 10 Canadian Screen Awards, including two for Nguyen's script and direction. But, as Nguyen explained during an interview at last month's Toronto International Film Festival, it was Rebelle's Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film which made the measurable and significant difference. So what if the film lost out to Michael Haneke's Amour for the trophy? The nomination alone prompted agents at L.A.-based powerhouse Creative Artists Agency to sign Nguyen to their roster, ensuring they would work hard to get their client's projects on the radar of the town's hot stars.
"The English filmmaking business is a little bit different than the French side," says Nguyen, 42, noting that it depends far more on "bankable, A-list actors. … The Oscars really made a big difference for me, because I get to have the scripts read. And sometimes all we can hope for is to not wait for three months to get something read."
That's even the case now for some Canadian-made movies, especially ones with relatively high budgets such as Two Lovers and a Bear, Nguyen's new $8-million romance-drama that was shot largely in Iqaluit. Opening Friday, the film stars Tatiana Maslany, the acting phenom who rocketed to fame – and, like Nguyen, the attention of Hollywood agents – playing a collection of clones on the cult television hit Orphan Black; and Dane DeHaan, perhaps best known as Harry Osborn/the Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 reboot, but who also turned in a nicely creepy Lucien Carr in the indie film Kill Your Darlings.
DeHaan and Maslany play desperate lovers, Roman and Lucy, who have each fled to the edge of the world to escape something horrific in their pasts. When Lucy gains admission to a school in the South, Roman, in danger of losing his emotional anchor, begins to spin out of control. So the two set out together across the vast tundra on a pair of snowmobiles, digging deep within themselves to battle the unpredictable elements and their own ghosts.
The film was based on an idea brought to Nguyen by the veteran Quebec producer Roger Frappier (The Grand Seduction). After War Witch, Nguyen visited the North and felt "an urgency to give a sense of what the Arctic is right now, especially Iqaluit, which is quite unique from the other places," he says.
"I just felt compelled to convey that. In Iqaluit, there's a microcosm of the world. I can't explain exactly what it is, but I got there and in the airport there was – I think it was a Pakistani or an Indian woman [working as a ticket agent; that character shows up in the film] – and I saw these Ethiopian guys riding a snowmobile, they'd just got there to work in the mines. And there was a Lebanese restaurant and there were taxi drivers from other parts of the world. And you could buy an orange that came from South Africa," he says.
"And there was a lot of pollution, actually. Because [the permafrost means] you can't dig down, so you have these huge dump sites. So you have a really concentrated representation of our world, in a way. And yet it's very different."
Still, Nguyen's Arctic is far from a prosaic multicultural landscape: It is flecked with surreal elements, from the shimmering aurora borealis to the enigmatic bear of the film's title.
In the North, "your relationship to space and time is more fluid," he observes. "You see a cliff and you think it's close, but in fact it's really far. It's very close to the feeling of seeing a mirage, because you start walking and you think you get closer, you get closer – but it's not getting any bigger and you realize it's literally 500 miles away. And the same thing with time – for those days when sometimes there's going to be 18, 20 hours of sun, and I'm sure if a watch didn't exist, maybe Einstein's relativity is kind of a representation of that. There's a warping reality that's really unique to the Arctic, so I wanted to convey that," he says.
"Everything's getting homogenized – Ikea Culture, I guess – and you do feel the urge to try to find some of those last remnants of – freedom, I guess. Freedom of geography. Also, this madness and irrationality that we're not used to dealing with."
Nguyen, who lives in Montreal with his wife, an acupuncturist, and their 13-year-old daughter, has already shot his follow-up film to Two Lovers and a Bear: Eye on Juliet, a romance of sorts about a drone operator and a young Middle Eastern woman he spots during a mission, whose hand in marriage has been promised to an older man she apparently doesn't love.
Like War Witch, which was shot in the Congo with actors who spoke French and Lingala, Nguyen's new film might not immediately strike people as Canadian. Over the past couple of months, Canada's cultural sector has erupted over how to best define a Canadian film or TV show: Must it have a largely Canadian cast? A Canadian crew? A Canadian producer? Nguyen seems to have little time for such discussions.
"If we start asking artists to decide the location and the subjects of what our heart wants to talk about, we start to get closer to a cultural dictatorship," he offers. "Could you say to Kafka not to write Amerika because he's from Prague? That's pure nonsense to me, it doesn't make any sense. For me, the answer is really clear: What defines a film is from where the creators come."