5 October 2001 | Filmtribute
Worthy Australian remake of Casablanca
Although there can never be any danger of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman being surpassed in Michael Curtiz' seminal version of the eternal romantic classic `Casablanca' (1942), the storyline obviously provides others with the inspiration to try. John Lawless Duigan (`The Year My Voice Broke'& `Sirens'), who wrote and directed this 1982 Australian production, brazenly ensures that `Far East' joins the ever growing list of remakes which now includes the fair attempt of `Havana' (1990) starring Robert Redford as well as `Cuba' (1979) with Sean Connery. The intrigue is relocated from North Africa during World War II to 1980's South East Asia, to a colourful and sleazy undisclosed setting that is ostensibly Manila (or is it really Macau?), teeming with life amongst the political unrest of the Philippines. The Koala Klub, a seedy disco bar with the worst of 70's/80's dance dirge and alas without a piano player, is run by Morgan Keefe (Bryan Brown) an ex-pat Aussie who didn't return home after the Vietnam War and, in keeping with local custom, keeps a troupe of dancing girls for the entertainment of his unsavoury customers. Just as in the original movie his former lover walks into his bar with her husband (John Bell in his AFI award nominated supporting role as Peter Reeves), this time a deadpan crusading journalist. Helen Morse as the exotic Jo Reeves from Saigon, whose father was a French black-marketeer, has the excuse to reprise her seductive French accent a la Mademoiselle de Poitiers from Peter Weir's exceptional `Picnic at Hanging Rock', though it is less charming when uttering Anglo-Saxon expletives. In a very different role to Ingrid Bergman's, Jo is rather modernly portrayed as a lecherous lush, and to everyone's embarrassment, she sexily embraces a large objet d'art' at a flamboyantly dressed party, before coquettishly joking with Morgan how she put the gardener in hospital. Bill Hunter, as the mutual friend Walker, is a very familiar stalwart face having appeared in many major Australian films that have reached the UK over the last three decades from `Eliza Fraser' (1976) to `Gallipoli' (1981) through to `Muriel's Wedding' (1994).
After renewing their liaison, Jo seeks Morgan's help when her husband is persecuted by the military regime for investigating the workings of multi-national corporations and their exploitation of the cheap local labour force. Reeves and his native contact, Rosita (Raina McKeon), to whom he seems to show more than a professional interest, are arrested' and held for questioning' by one of the many police factions for prying too closely into the shooting of a worker on a picket line. Reeves is forced to watch the extremely abhorrent rape of Rosita, who is later tortured by cigarette burns, reflecting the baseness of humanity and the depths we are all capable of descending into given the right environment. A disturbing comment on the callous disregard for life in this part of the world is made when a government cover up is unearthed after demonstrators in the country are slaughtered by the military.
Beneath his heartless and cynical exterior, Morgan (perfectly delineated by Bryan Brown), who uses one of his girls as payment for information, finds his feelings run deep for his `frog' and he does the implausibly heroic deed of single handedly infiltrating the unofficial `safe house' to rescue Reeves and Rosita, even withstanding a hail of machine gun bullets, to escape with only a cut hand. In a plot departure the ending is fittingly more bitter and less sweet than the original's, there is no `beginning of a beautiful friendship' as the Reeves make their escape out of the non fog-bound harbour, whilst the fates of Rosita, Morgan and his `business partner', Nene (Sinan Leong) are determined in an effective slo-mo finale which momentarily deceives you. Though it may lack the sheer style and wit of `Casablanca', being possessed of comic book baddies and the occasional hysterical performance, this film still entertains with some very watchable Australian actors, and helps expose some of humanity's plights and sufferings, exploited by unscrupulous corporations to contribute to our cosy materialistic western worlds.
The romantic pairing of Helen Morse (`Agatha') and Bryan Brown (`Breaker Morant') capitalises on their original outing together a year earlier in the splendid TV mini-series `A Town Like Alice', Nevil Shute's epic tale of love from war torn Malaya to the Australian Outback, which led to a grand passion off screen. Devastatingly for Helen the affair ended abruptly when she read in a TV magazine that her partner had become involved with Rachel Ward whilst making `The Thorn Birds' in 1983, and Helen subsequently became something of a recluse, turning down offers for films such as `Yanks'. As a result the film industry and many of her fans have shamefully been deprived of a remarkably precious talent (in 1976 Helen won both the Australian Film Institute's and the San Sebastian International Film Festival's awards for Best Actress for her performance as `Caddie' in the film of the same name). Whilst her co-star has gone on to such great things as `Cocktail' and `F/X', Helen has concentrated on theatre, receiving critical acclaim in recent years for plays such as `The Woman in the Window' (1998), and she is to star in the forthcoming Melbourne festival's production of Patrick White's `The Aunt's Tale' (23 October to 3 November 2001).
Unfortunately the quality of the recording of the video-to-video copy I obtained from ScreenSound Australia not only impaired the sound but didn't do full justice to the cinematography by Brian Probyn (`Inn of the Damned'), who sadly died the same year `Far East' was released. The time-coded window was particularly obtrusive, being unnecessarily large, and I would advise obtaining a copy of the master video in this instance.