27 October 2001 | petershelleyau
a mystery worth dying for
John Seale was camera operator on seminal Australian films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, and DOP on Careful He Might Hear You, The Mosquito Coast, Rain Man and Gorillas in the Mist. This pedigree perhaps makes the disappointment of his directorial debut all the worse. He would manage to restore his reputation as DOP on Lorenzo's Oil, The Firm, The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley. A mire of thriller, romantic triangle and jungle adventure genre conventions, Seale's film is only memorable for the glimpses of the Ava Gardner sloe-eyed beauty of Deborah Unger (later realised in Whispers in the Dark, and Crash), and his anthropological observation of the Bunlap tribe of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu where the film was shot. The plot concerns Mark Harmon as a New York barman come saxophonist who visits Vanuatu to see his brother, now believed murdered because of his association with Jeroen Krabbe and his wife Unger. The screenplay by Michael Thomas never decides what it wants to be, which subsequently means we don't care about the fate of Harmon's unseen brother, though going on how the locals have deified him, we can be sure he'd be unbearably pious. Thomas delivers a stale plot about Krabbe being a colonial white supremacist, and Seale doesn't help by reducing the natives to giggling exotics, or copycat Americans with their own bar and a bouncer wearing a t-shirt labeled "local boy". The only interesting point is the legend of the Betty Blonde, an American WW2 bomber which disappeared over the Islands and believed to be carrying captured Japanese gold (though how the Japanese gold was captured is not explained), and the discovery of a sunken underwater treasure with the likeness of Unger painted on it. Seale uses music appallingly, provides an ominous game of poker with Unger playing the title song on piano in the background, and people conveniently wear all white for night chases in blue light. However things pick up a little when Harmon and Unger are lost in the jungle and find a native camp, though soon Krabbe and his henchmen are in pursuit. Seale has one good edit, a cut from Krabbe kissing Unger in public to a private slap, and he effectively creates tension for the climactic confrontation, however exhaution and miscasting undermine our sympathies. Harmon is the kind of bland TV pretty boy like Don Johnson and Corbin Bernsen, who has some skill but no screen empathy, so that no matter how terrible Krabbe's actions and how poorly Seale protects him from acting humiliation, his comparative magnetism sways our allegiance to him. Seale even employs the wonderful Kate Ceberano to perform the title song at the conclusion then cuts away from her after one verse!