Film
cover art

Brokedown Palace

Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Cast: Claire Danes, Kate Beckinsale, Bill Pullman, Lou Diamond Phillips, Jacqui Kim, John Doe

(20th Century Fox; 1999)

Girls Can Do It Too

High school movies tend to end with graduation. It’s at the prom that the primary couple finally achieves their much-anticipated clinch (with camera circling and trendy pop song resounding) while their adversaries — treacherous teachers, jealous fellow students, ridiculous parents — back off or smile approvingly, showing that they have indeed learned whatever lessons they’re supposed to have learned.


You might occasionally wonder what happens after graduation. You might imagine, for example, that time continues, that characters grow up, that romances heat up or go cold. You might even imagine that the characters you think you know so well in high school movies go somewhere.


In Brokedown Palace, two girls — Alice Marano (Claire Danes) and Darlene Davis (Kate Beckinsale, from Last Days of Disco) — head off to Thailand for eleven days, celebrating that they’ve survived the mundane ordeals of high school. What an adventure it seems for these beautiful suburbanites: with the meager money they’ve earned as motel maids, they manage an vacation in a cheap, highly exploitable paradise. The film, directed by Jonathan Kaplan, opens with their initial views of Bangkok: the streets are crowded, the Buddhas are plentiful, and the native dancers are moving in exotic slow motion.


So far, so good. But after a few days shopping, swimming, and crashing fancy hotel poolsides, Alice and Dar run headlong into a nightmare. Seduced by an Australian pretty boy (Daniel Lapaine), they agree to go for a weekend in Hong Kong. He buys their tickets and plans to meet them there. They’re giddy with anticipation, happy to be seduced, giggling and darling in their baby tees. And then they’re stopped at the Bangkok airport, found carrying 6 kilos of heroin in a backpack.


Being busted for drugs in a third world nation is a terrible thing: you know that much from 1978’s Midnight Express and last year’s Return to Paradise. According to these movies, U.S. citizens have a particularly bad time: not knowing the language or the face-saving ins and outs of the legal system, they’re prone to major errors in judgment. Alice, who happens to be the film’s narrator (via her in-prison audiotapes to her lawyer), is sweet and resourceful, but apparently everyone thinks that she might be guilty and this makes her feel really really bad (and Danes does that sad, trembling-lip face really really well).


Dar is also sweet and naive (she’s the one who slept with the Australian rascal). But she’s not very quick on her feet (she’s the one who severely screws them up when she signs a confession, in Thai, which she believes is a statement of innocence she dictated when they’re first tossed in jail). Based on this bogus confession, the girls are sent down and locked up. Suddenly, they’re no longer happy white girls on a lark. Now, they’re two of hundreds of women from all over the world, confined, hopeless, and morose. Like their fellow inmates, the girls are suddenly forgotten by the rest of the planet. Alice calls her widower dad, who’s played by John Doe (that he’s cast as anyone’s dad is plainly a bad thing for the child), and he rebuffs her. Darlene calls her middle class insurance salesman dad, who contacts the local DEA rep (Lou Diamond Phillips, looking mean and seedy, but you have to wonder why he took the part). Dar’s mom has a brief mention here: catch her, if you can, sighing on the phone. The situation looks grimmer and grimmer.


Brokedown Palace is heavy on the grimness and, worse, surprisingly dull-headed regarding its women characters. Director Kaplan has, in the past, shown a predilection for working class hard cases and interesting women characters (Heart Like a Wheel, The Accused, Love Field, Immediate Family), and he treats these girls respectfully (though he shies away from the obvious point that homoerotic and homosexual desires would circulate in such a situation).


But the story, apparently the distaff version of Midnight Express, is melodramatic in a banal rather than intelligent way. Producer Adam Fields claims that came up with the story after visiting Thailand and being moved by pleas for help from incarcerated women with similar stories. This real life sense of mission doesn’t keep the script, by David Arata, from lapsing into shorthand and nonsense. In prison, the girls befriend a mellow black woman, with Caribbean accent (or rather, she says “mon” repeatedly) and requisite dreads (she may have a white British lover, but the film doesn’t actually explore their relationship, only drops a visual hint or two regarding their possible coupledom). And Alice is targeted by a Thai girl, who seems intent on torturing her, ratting her out to the guards and setting her up for various falls (the shots of the evil Thai girl watching or listening in on Alice from a distance are a bit too dragon-lady for me).


This hopelessness is temporarily relieved by a U.S. lawyer based in Thailand, Yankee Hank Greene (Bill Pullman, as painfully earnest as he’s ever been) and his law partner-wife Yon (Jacqui Kim). In fact, the film handles their relationship in a rather curious way: she’s the one who pushes him to look at details of the case — the shoddy police report and the likelihood that the cops are in cahoots with the Australian — but he’s the one who does the face time with the girls and in court (if it was anyone but Pullman playing the part, you might read this inequality as a function of his charismatic movie starness, but here it just seems perverse, because Kim is frankly a more engaging actor and her character is more dedicated and shrewd).


It’s clear that Alice and Dar (and girls like them) are dupes of men — their fathers, their too-busy-with-college-already boyfriends who visit them once in prison, their invisible government reps, the Australian — and it’s clear that they’re far too willing to feel guilty for their youthful recklessness. Brokedown Palace means so well and poses such difficult moral dilemmas that you’d like to cut it some slack. But the execution — the heavy-handed score, the sensational confessions and confrontations, the relentless images of beastly, unfeeling Thais — is distressingly, unbelievably clumsy.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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