Brokedown Palace

Summer is rarely a time for release of serious films with explicit political agendas. A possible exception might have been Brokedown Palace, directed by Jonathan Kaplan, whose films have been twice nominated by the Political Film Society. This film, however, appears to have started with some good ideas in a story by Adam Fields that was trashed during screenplay rewrites by David Arata: Imagine two foolish girls from Ohio, Alice (played by Claire Danes) and Darlene (played by Kate Beckinsale), taking a trip abroad as a high school graduation present. Soon after arriving and seeing the sights, they decide to go to the top hotel in town for a swim, pretending that they are hotel guests. Soon, they are charmed by an Australian named Nick Parks (played by Daniel Lapaine), who offers to take them to another exotic vacation spot (Hongkong), unaware that he plans to use them as decoys to draw the police away from his “mules”–that is, paid smugglers on the same flight. As Alice and Darlene attempt to board the flight, a substantial amount of heroin is found in Alice’s hand-carried luggage at the airport. They are both arrested with much fanfare, cannot defend themselves, and are both sentenced to 33 years in prison. An American lawyer, “Yankee Hank” (played by Bill Pullman), milks their parents for a $15,000 retainer but fails to get them released, and American Embassy officials provide no help either. Eventually, Alice accepts responsibility for the crime so convincingly in an audience before the reigning monarch of the country that he allows Darlene to go free. However, the film appears spitefully to settle personal scores regarding a true story (but the story is made up!) rather than to build a generic case against something needing redress. First, the girls originally had tickets to Hawai`i but Alice persuaded Darlene not to go because it’s perceived as too “middle class,” which makes one wonder what the director and writers have against the Aloha State. Then, why vilify Thailand, the venue for the film, rather than neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, where the certain penalty is death? Arata even went to Thailand to interview prisoners, and a daft request to do the filming in Thailand was denied because of the obvious dishonor to a proud people and country. In actuality, the filming transparently is in Manila, which apparently suits the aim of locating a sleazy, rundown urban environment that is not at all typical of far more affluent Bangkok. The American lawyer wavers between being a saint and a shyster, so what does that prove? Clearly heroin was found in the hand-carried luggage. The film hints that the hotel porter who loaded the luggage planted the heroin with instructions from Nick; but Alice never checked to see why her hand-carried luggage gained so much weight, so we are also led to believe that Darlene may have betrayed Alice, although another explanation is that the heroin was planted by a mule who had never seen the two girls before while they left their hand-carried luggage unattended in the boarding lounge. Why should filmviewers sympathize with cocky girls who lie to their parents, behave like ugly Americans in the early part of the film, and later protest their innocence? The Drug Enforcement Agency officer at the U.S. Embassy (played by Lou Diamond Phillips) is curiously portrayed as unconcerned with the fate of two fragile teenagers and even with cracking down on the drug trade. Thai officials are portrayed as corrupt, crude, dishonest, and untrustworthy but not brutal, though the king shows compassion. The Thai prison is seen as overcrowded, but reasonably clean despite inevitable cockroaches. Parents and friends of the girls prove to be ineffectual, though upper middle class Darlene and her parents eventually blame her plight on lower middle class Alice. Although the story seems to be a collaboration between admirers of the 1978 film Midnight Express and last year’s Return to Paradise, the film is a flawed hybrid about silly girls who are easily outsmarted, hardly a plot to receive praise from feminists. The title, which presumably refers to the architecture of the Thai prison, may be found in a recent novel that tells a very different tale, which might have made a better film. MH