8 November 2018 | JamesHitchcock
After the fall of Saigon to the Communists in 1975, a large number of Vietnamese opposed to the Communist regime fled the country, many of them finding refuge in America or other Western countries. At the end of the seventies and into the eighties, following the worsening of relations between Vietnam and its former allies in China, there was a second wave of refugees from Vietnam as the regime turned on the country's Chinese minority. Many of these new refugees attempted to reach other South-East Asian countries by boat and hence became known as the "boat people".
This film, based on a novel by Blanche d'Alpuget, the wife of a former Australian Prime Minister, tells the story of Judith, an Australian photojournalist determined to bring to the world's attention the plight of boat people being held in terrible conditions in a refugee camp sited on an offshore Malaysian island. The Malaysian Government, of course, does not want her to find out the truth, and she receives little support either from her own government or from her bosses, who do not want to upset the authorities, but she is helped by Minou, the Vietnamese wife of an Australian diplomat.
For obvious reasons filming could not take place in Malaysia. The Malaysian Government took deep exception to the storyline, especially the scenes in which a Malay mob murder a large number of refugees, despite (or more likely because of) the fact that these scenes are historically accurate and that their own treatment of the boat people was marked by a complete lack of humanity. Hussein Onn, Prime Minister of Malaysia at the time, notoriously said that if any more boat people come to Malaysia "we will shoot them". (When this remark caused international outrage he claimed, unconvincingly, that what he had really said was "we will shoo them"). This uncompassionate attitude was rooted in Malaysia's own complex racial politics and its long and unlovely history of bigotry and racial discrimination against its own Chinese minority. (The film opens with a recreation of the riots of May 1969, in which many ethnic Chinese were slaughtered by Malay mobs).
There are a number of similarities between "Turtle Beach" and Peter Weir's "The Year of Living Dangerously", another Australian film about a journalist who gets involved in political turmoil in a South-East Asian country (in that case Indonesia). Much as I admire Weir, one of the greatest living directors, I have never regarded "The Year of Living Dangerously" as being his best film. Even so, it is a lot better than "Turtle Beach", a film so unsuccessful that it was nicknamed "Turkey Beach" by derisive critics. Both the director Stephen Wallace and the scriptwriter Ann Turner blamed its failure upon interference by the producers, who allegedly had no clear idea of what sort of film they wanted to make. According to Wallace, 'the producers all wanted to make "Pretty Woman" '.
If that was indeed their goal, they can hardly be said to have succeeded- "Turtle Beach" bears virtually no resemblance to that amiable rom-com "Pretty Woman" whatsoever. Indeed, it bears very little resemblance to anything apart from a complete mess. Turner said that "When I first saw the film I thought it looked like the writer was on drugs or completely insane". She was certainly right about that. We cannot know what the film would have been like had her original script been kept, but the script that was actually used is often confusing and difficult to follow, with an ending makes very little sense at all. The film stars Greta Scacchi and Joan Chen, two leading international stars of the period, as Judith and Minou, but both seem completely wasted here, as does the well-known Australian actor Jack Thompson as Judith's boss Ralph. The tragedy of the Vietnamese boat people deserved a much better film than this. 4/10