Serious story is wasted in 'Turtle Beach'

May 04, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

If seriousness were excellence, there wouldn't be enough stars in heaven to hand out to "Turtle Beach." It's about that plague of civilization, ethnic hatred, and how an evil breeze can inflate it into a bubble of grotesque violence. No, the setting isn't Los Angeles; it's Malaysia, in the wake of the Vietnam War, when Vietnamese boat people took their shiploads of woe ashore and were greeted with almost hysterical fear, loathing and violence.

But seriousness isn't excellence and "Turtle Beach" isn't excellent; it's just mediocre, a mild soap opera performed against a backdrop of tragedy from which it draws considerable, though unearned, power.

Greta Scacchi plays an ambitious Australian reporter named Judith Wilkes who pines to crack "the Boat People story," though Malaysian officials refuse to allow her, or any reporter, admittance to a refugee camp that is evidently a good bit like Dachau.

Her one ally in her quest is the wife of the Australian ambassador to Malaysia, who happens to be both Vietnamese and a boat person. Using her considerable charms and her husband's diplomatic immunity, Minou (Joan Chen) has developed into the only effective advocate for the refugees in Malaysia.

The movie draws its title from one of the most horrifying spectacles in nature: the birth and subsequent slaughter of baby sea-turtles who must emerge from the sand and make it to the sea against the predations of the hungry birds. About one in 10 makes it; the movie suggests the refugees must run a similar gantlet -- unless a "sacrifice" is made to appease the angry crowds who gather to drive the Vietnamese away.

Scacchi is only adequate. Worse, the film enmeshes her in an anti-feminist subtext that I found offensive. For her career she's abandoned her children; the tragic events she witnesses lead her to see the evil of her ways and, chastened and reformed, she returns to mummyhood in Sydney.

As for Chen, as usual she's fantastic: spirited, complex, vivid, a woman of several worlds and comfortable in all of them. She holds the story together, even through its maudlin moments and its long stretches of implausibility.

Too much of the film seems derived from the tradition of soap opera: Chen's character, for example, has three long-lost children who show up just at the right time. But the movie also goes into the heart of refugee hell and quite apart from its self-indulgent melodramatics makes you weep for the children lost in the dark places of the world.

'Turtle Beach'

Starring Greta Scacchi and Joan Chen.

Directed by Stephen Wallace.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.

... **

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