You can bet - as inevitable as a 10-metre wall of water - that scrutiny and criticism await any western film-maker who wants to make cinema about the developing world. Sure enough, the Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona fell foul of this law of culture-physics with his recently released tsunami story, The Impossible. Alongside the praise for his re-creation of the devastation unleashed on south-east Asian shores on December 26, 2004 were many denouncements of his decision to focus on the story of one western family - with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as mum and dad - instead of the tens of thousands of Indonesian, Thai, Indian and Sri Lankan victims.
There's certainly an argument there about the ethics of representation, about Hollywood and the West - embarrassingly - still writing the script for the rest of the world well into the 21st century. Don't expect that one to be resolved any time soon. But The Impossible wasn't the best jumping-off point for that particular crusade. It concerns a natural disaster, after all, which affects all humans alike; Bayona's argument that "this is not a film of nationality, race or social class - all that was swept away by the wave" is valid to some extent (simultaneously running spats about the politics of Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty , which deal directly in relations between oppressor and oppressed, feel like much better places to get indignant).
Ultimately, any director's real responsibility is only to the story he chooses to tell - and not to the wider world. Bayona's The Impossible has a certain integrity on that score. It depicts, mostly using real water rather than CGI, the two waves that smashed into the Khao Lak Orchid Beach resort with stunning immediacy. It maintains adrenalin-heightened focus on the struggles of McGregor, Watts and their three sons to pull clear of the undertow, and then regroup. The fact there are only two speaking roles for Thai characters - a concierge and a young nurse - is probably faithful to the limited interactions most tourists have while they're there.
The film isn't interested in Thailand, or the wider context of the disaster, or any kind of theme broader than family relationships. It settles for the nicely commercial afterglow of vague Spielbergian transcendence (the fact that the whole family escapes the ordeal intact is "the impossible" of the title) with which it ties up the tale. The scope of Bayona's tsunami story is conservative; survival, self-interest and kin-bonds are the principles The Impossible clings to, its characters serving as what-if-it-had-been-you surrogates for its western audience, of whom nothing more is asked than a deep gulp of cathartic air at the end. Conservatism runs through the project, right down to its financial bones.
The new global lingua franca
The real-life family whose story was borrowed by The Impossible are Spanish. But the casting of stars like McGregor and Watts was necessary, says Bayona, in order to guarantee access to the English-language mainstream film market and secure the $45m budget needed. The mainstream has moved on, though: the last decade has shown that a market exists for non-English-language work with the right commercial sheen. Crossover productions like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , City of God , Pan's Labyrinth , Slumdog Millionaire and indeed Bayona's debut, the 2007 horror film The Orphanage (which made $78m on a $4m budget), have proved that the lingua franca doesn't have to English. $45m is admittedly a much bigger risk than $4m. But if The Impossible had stayed Spanish, then the likes of Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, Gael García Bernal all have the levels of stardom to provide the insurance against that risk (the first three are arguably bigger stars than McGregor and Watts).
"Surely, aside from the moral questions of depicting the tsunami's victims, it would have been a sensible commercial move to boost the Asian dimension of the story? "
Spanish speakers could have chaperoned the film further into different film markets, like the Latin American ones that are currently some of the fastest growing in the world. The impossibly fortunate McGregor-Watts clan fly out of Thailand at the end of the film, peering over an oneiric, drowned-world landscape like something out of Bosch. But if Bayona had been on more intimate terms with the terrain, he'd have realised that east Asia was also another global box-office hotspot (with strong audience growth in Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as the much-publicised recent Chinese explosion).
Surely, aside from the moral questions of depicting the tsunami's victims, it would have been a sensible commercial move to boost the Asian dimension of the story? Thai and Indonesian stars with some kind of global recognition factor might be thin on the ground, but it's hard to believe there weren't Chinese, Malaysian or Hong Kong A-listers who could conceivably have passed for south-east Asians. Not the most culturally sensitive ploy, admittedly - but exactly the kind of casting compromise and opportunistic story expansion Hollywood has had few qualms about in its pursuit of box office down the decades.
A western box-office disappointment
That kind of shrewdness will be a commodity as mainstream audiences become more global and pluralised. Bayona probably feels he's made enough compromises to play in the big league, but maybe he made the wrong ones. The Impossible aimed primarily at the western market, but it's up for debate how well it has succeeded: outside of Spain, where it has become the highest grossing local film ever, its numbers haven't been that impressive. The $7m US take is especially disappointing - the same as The Orphanage's , on 10 times the budget.
The Impossible is only the picture of the modern, 21st-century globalised film in one sense: that it was produced outside of the Hollywood system (and even then Bayona gets distribution support from Warner Brothers' international division). It's in hock to tradition in every other respect, playing to the received wisdom of film financiers, not to new openings. $45m isn't that huge an amount as far as big-budget film-making goes; there are funds springing up in the Gulf, India and China able to supply that and more. If The Impossible had gone down that route, its outlook would have been necessarily less western and its box-office tidal-reach much greater. Examining the finances carefully would settle all the debates about whether the tsunami was "fundamentally" an Asian story. Where the money is, the stories have to follow.
Phil Hoad writes the After Hollywood blog, about cinema and globalisation, for the Guardian.
Follow him on Twitter: @quikcrit
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.