Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:40 - Released 8/13/99

Being convicted of a crime one did not do is a horrible thing to consider. The thought of it happening in another country is even more terrifying, and that has been the subject of some powerfully intense films in the last few years, such as Red Corner and Return To Paradise. Brokedown Palace, written by freshmen Adam Fields and David Arata, and directed by Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused), is the latest to deal with this topic. It is the unnerving story of two young women whose carefree vacation in Thailand is abruptly cut short when they are used as "mules" by a heroin smuggler and thrown in jail. The acting by Claire Danes is impeccable; her co-star, Kate Beckinsale, is no less skillful.

Alice Morano (Danes) and Darlene Davis (Beckinsale) are a pair of recent high school graduates looking for a little excitement. Though they had planned a week-long trip to Hawaii, Alice convinces Darlene to lie to her father and travel with her to the more exotic Bangkok instead. Following the usual pattern of their relationship, the more reluctant Darlene goes along with the more rebellious Alice and takes the 24-hour plane trip to Thailand. They rent a squalid room, which is all they can afford, but Alice sneaks them into a posh hotel so they can use the pool. They almost get caught, but along comes an attractive young Australian man (Daniel Lapaine), who covers their drinks, parties with them for a few days, and finally invites them to Hong Kong for the weekend. But while at the airport the girls are stopped by police, who find several kilos of heroin in their bags. Next thing they know, they're sitting in a room much more squalid than the one they rented — a jail cell.

They are at first confident that they will be released, but the Chinese laws don't grant suspected criminals the same rights afforded to those in the U.S. Soon they are going to trial with the help of a local American attorney, "Yankee Hank" Greene (Bill Pullman). Hank and his wife Yon (Jacqui Kim) run a small law firm in Hong Kong and specialize in American cases. But neither Hank nor the American embassy official (Lou Diamond Phillips) is sure they're innocent; nor are their estranged parents. If they're convicted, they could face life in prison, or the more lenient sentence of only 33 years.

Although it bears many resemblances to last year's excellent Return To Paradise, this is a very good film in its own right. Danes and Beckinsale both give powerful performances, and the setting achieved by director Kaplan is disturbingly realistic. Not being too familiar with Chinese law, I can't be sure how believable the Fields/Arata story is, but there must be something to it since so many recent thrillers have had that subject. Like the two films mentioned above, this one touches on the curious policy that if one admits guilt, one would face a lighter sentence, even if one is really innocent. This is because of the Asian courts' view of "moral character." Unless you can prove your innocence, among crooked law enforcement officials who alter the facts in order to make themselves look good, you might as well confess. Again, I am unaware of the validity of this, and the film's believability rests upon it.

An interesting postscript to this story is that in September 1988 Danes was banned from the Philippines (where the principal filming was done) for making "derogatory remarks," and condemned publicly by the president of that country. I wonder, had she not been a movie star, if she would have gotten a little more quality time to reflect on her "character." ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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