Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Lessons of Turtle Beach

The Australian film Turtle Beach, which angered our government so much that it nearly caused a diplomatic break between Malaysia and Australia, was released in March 1992. It turned out to be a real turkey of a film; both in Australia and the United States, it failed to draw the crowds. When my daughter Anna saw it in the second or third week of its short run in Sydney, there was, in her words, “a grand crowd of four” in the cinema. I suppose if I hadn’t asked her to see it for me, she should have heeded the unfavourable reviews and stayed away. The reviews must have been pretty bad. How can one otherwise explain the disaster at the box office? For the film had fierce advance publicity in the media, much of which was gratis, courtesy of our very obliging government. If there hadn’t been that free publicity, there might not even have been the “grand crowd of four”.
I think there is a lesson here for us, meaning our government. If a foreign film, or book for the matter, is set in Malaysia and contains scenes which might tarnish our marvellous image among the nations of the world, try not to make a fuss about it. Don’t draw attention to the offending film or book; in other words don’t give it free publicity. For there is usually nothing like a scandal, including a diplomatic one, to help sell a film or book. In any case, protests are usually futile; nobody really heads them. And if they sound over defensive or self-righteous, as they usually tend to, it can, in fact, make matters worse. The offended party can seem too be protesting too much, which can be read as having something to hide.
There is another consideration which our government should try to bear in mind before allowing offended pride, national interest or whatever to take charge of its reaction to any perceived offence. It should remember that governments of Western democracies, including Australia, have a slightly different notion of free speech. In Australia, the UK or the US, it’s accepted as part of the freedom of creativity for a film or a novel to create characters and depict scenes which put public figures in a very bad light, or suggest new highly damning interpretations of recent events of national importance. As long as the fictive mode of the work is understood and the writer or producer takes care to remain within the bounds of the law, this freedom is considered essential to a creative exposure of the truth of public life. The book and film All The President’s Men, about the Watergate scandal, or the more recent Oliver Stone movie JFK, about the Kennedy assassination, are two well-known works which exercised to the fullest the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of creativity. The US government may not have liked what they showed of the corruption of the system, but there was nothing it could do about it.
In the case of Turtle Beach, our government’s reactions seemed to suggest that it expected the Australian government to ban the film. It forgot that Australia is not Malaysia where films or TV dramas cannot even show a policeman let alone a Minister taking bribes. Canberra was so anxious about KL’s reaction that it felt compelled to “dissociate” itself from Turtle Beach. This was necessary because one of the financiers of the film was the Film Finance Corporation, a government-based body. If this hadn’t been the case, I wonder if Canberra would still have made the statement, to “dissociate” itself from something with which it wasn’t “associated” in the first place. I haven’t seen Turtle Beach, but I have read the novel. From what my daughter told me and from newspaper clippings about the film that she sent, Turtle Beach, as film adaptations of novels often are, is a crude sensationalization of a respectable work of fiction.
The novel written by Blanche d’Alpuget, wife of an Australian diplomat and a former journalist, who was once stationed here, was first published in 1981 by Penguin Books (Australia). It won four Australian awards for fiction and has been reprinted a number of times. It is quite an inoffensive book, I think, even by our government’s standards. I assume it hasn’t been banned in this country, for I bought my copy here a few years ago. I have some reservations about the picture of Malaysia and Malaysians projected by this novel. In particular, I thought the treatment of Malay/non-Malay relations is rather shallow, at times even tendentious. And I wonder why the novel didn’t have a single positive Malay character. (Poor d’Alpuget, to have spent some time here and not come across a single decent Malay! Yes, Blanche dear, we do have people like Tunku Jamie, that “brown fog of a nobleman”, that repulsive specimen of royal philistinism, who has to have lessons in his own mother tongue. Yes, but…) These reservations about the novel, however aren’t strong enough to cloud my judgement of its literary merit. I think it's quite well written and has a serious theme which on the whole is treated with intelligence, wit and some imaginative tact.
Here’s an example of its wit that I can’t resist quoting: “The government man said, ‘Nobody knows where these animals (i.e. the turtles) live, but they build their nests in only three places in the world – Costa Rica, Surinam and Terengganu.’ His tone indicated that this was a victory for the Malaysian government, against some other governments. Thailand perhaps.”
Our man in Wisma Putra whose job it is to go through any suspicious book with a fine-toothed comb, must have been pleased with that bit about “a victory for the Malaysian government” which probably cancelled any doubts about the book as a whole.
Turtle Beach is not really about the Vietnamese refugee crisis as the fuss of the film may have led Malaysians to believe. It tells the story of an Australian journalist, Judith Wilkes, who gets herself sent to Malaysia to cover the boat people at a time when her own private life is moving towards a crisis. There Judith finds herself caught in an ambivalent relationship with two people: Minou, the French-Vietnamese wife of the Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia; and Kanan, a Malaysian academic. 

Blanche d'Apuget with former Australian PM Bob Hawke
Minou too has an interest in the boat people, but, unlike the journalist’s, her is deeply personal. A wily survivor who knows how to use her sexual assets to get what she wants, she is a sort of “Suzie Wong” with a surprising capacity for devotion and self-sacrifice. She has been waiting for the arrival of her mother and child on one of the boats (the child is from a previous association before her escape from Vietnam). She is in the habit of keeping vigil on turtle beach whenever a boat is expected. Her reckless obsession is a diplomatic embarrassment to her “sugar-daddy husband. The Minou story ends tragically when she throws herself into the sea on discovering that her family isn’t on the boat. All this is witnessed by Judith; what a scoop for an ambitious journalist out to strike out on her own without the encumbrance of a hubby! Kanan, whose physical beauty strongly attracts Judith, is a somewhat inscrutable Hindu. She discovers that he has more karma than courage when it comes to moments of decision, and more tolerance of evil that she can tolerate. Her unconsummated passion for him fizzles out like an unexpected monsoon shower in the hard light of his “metaphysical” (and pragmatic) detachment from the tragedy of the boat people.
The Malaysian government was angered by the film adaptation of the novel mainly because of a scene in it that shows villagers killing the boat people on Pulau Bidong. Actually, there is no such scene in the novel, though we do get characters referring to such incidents, and none of the references suggest that only Malaysians are guilty of this lack of human compassion in such a situation. The massacre scene, in particular, roused the ire of d’Alpuget who condemned it as a gratuitous departure from her novel. I’d imagine she would have no more love for other instances of the scriptwriter’s spicing-up of the story with sensational “Oriental” elements. And I doubt that the film retains any of the instances of moral distancing or objectivity found in the novel – such as the subjecting of a protagonist to implied criticism in the climactic scene.

Here, the moral ambiguity of Judith’s profession, with its obsession with “scoops,” is highlighted when the captain of the boat that brought in the refugee points out to her that there is basically no difference between their professions: “’You and me the same. We make money from peoples,’ he said and laughed, grating his handcuffs in the direction of the refugees.” Yes, corruption can come in many forms. And Blanche d’Alpuget is good and frank enough as a novelist to see this and embody the awareness in this work.
17 September 1992

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