Twenty years ago today, 18-year-old American Michael Fay was caned four times in Singapore after pleading guilty to vandalizing cars, also serving four months in jail and paying a fine despite protests from the Clinton White House over the menial nature of his crime. The incident was a momentary media phenomenon in the U.S. and served as a wake-up-call for Americans on the vast cultural differences in Asian countries that had recently opened their borders to western tourism, and helped inspire a strange mini-phenomenon in cinema—the Asian Tourism Panic movie.
The sub-genre went as fast as it came, producing only flops and leaving a legacy of cheap gags (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason sees our hero clapped up in a comically oppressive prison for the sake of a third act plot-twist). But there was a real moment there, in the late '90s, where thanks to films like Return to Paradise, Brokedown Palace and The Beach, one could reasonably assume that a trip to Asia would result in cocaine being planted in your bag and your rights being taken away forever.
These were not the first films to play on the horrors of foreign justice systems. Alan Parker's 1978 Best Picture nominee Midnight Express practically invented the idea of languishing in a Turkish prison as elemental horror, although in that film the imprisoned American was trying to deliberately smuggle a couple kilos of hash. The Asian Tourist Panic movie feared not just for your experience in a third-world jail, but also for the hysterical frame-job that would land you in there. And not just you. Particularly in the case of Brokedown Palace and The Beach, and certainly reflected in the Michael Fay case, these were movies about what could happen to your college-aged children if you let their darling, white, hash-smoking faces venture off to the Orient.
Each film was more hysterical than the last, but each leaned on the assumption that American audiences would have slim to no understanding of the legal system of countries like Malaysia or Thailand. As the Iron Curtain fell and more of Asia opened up to visitors in the 1990s, there was a wave of vaguely xenophobic films—think Jon Avnet's Red Corner—that played on our fear of the unknown. The tourist panic genre swirled in a new element—the Lifetime movie twist, that "it could happen to YOU."
Return to Paradise
Remember when Vince Vaughn was a serious actor who mostly appeared in dramas, and Joaquin Phoenix would get billed behind Anne Heche? 1998 was a different time in so many ways. Return to Paradise has an Indecent Proposal hook to its plot, which should have guaranteed its success (it didn't—the film made some $8 million). After a fun holiday in Malaysia, buddies Sheriff (Vaughn), Lewis (Phoenix), and Tony (David Conrad) split ways, with Lewis staying on in the country. Two years later, a lawyer (Heche) shows up in New York and tells Sheriff and Tony that they have to return to save their friend's life, since he will be sentenced to death for possession of hash unless they share responsibility—and prison time—for the crime.
Would you spend some time in a Malaysian prison to spare your friend from execution? This is the moral question Return to Paradise poses. (Less sexy than "Would you, married lady Demi Moore, have sex with Robert Redford for a million dollars?" but not all Scruples cards are created equal.) Why not just stay in the friendly confines of the U.S. and let him suffer? Because there wouldn't be much of a movie if that happened, is of course the answer, and (spoiler alert) Lewis ends up dying anyway, because Malaysian judges are capricious and sensitive about American media coverage, apparently? Return to Paradise is exactly the overwrought nightmare one would expect Hollywood to produce.
Continuing the trend of giving terrible, obscure titles to movies about white people in Asian prison, Brokedown Palace starred Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale and set itself in Thailand. Other than that, it's similarly panicked: they're on vacation, a flirty boy puts some heroin in their bag, and they get chucked in jail for decades because they don't understand the legal system and are left with only Bill Pullman and a Sarah McLachlan trance mix to help them. Once again, one of the characters has to make a supreme sacrifice to help the other; once again, a legal system is presented mostly as throwing yourself on the mercy of an imperious overlord (this time it's the King of Thailand). Both of these films have a very limited understanding of diplomatic relations with the U.S., I might add—even North Korea would be cautious about sentencing Americans to death or life in prison for such minor crimes.
Neither Return to Paradise nor Brokedown Palace made any money, but they probably weren't considered sure things. That wasn't the case with The Beach. This was the first film Leonardo DiCaprio made after Titanic. It was based on a relatively well-known bestselling book and directed by Danny Boyle, hot off of Trainspotting. And it was far more fantastic, charting a college student's dreamy adventure to a remote part of Thailand where he makes out with hot girls and smokes a mountain of weed. But The Beach was guilty of the same paranoia, as everything goes to hell with militant farmers who start killing the poor surfers. Everything was heightened and ridiculous, sure, but the message was the same: beware, Far East vacationer.
The Beach made only $39 million domestically on a $50 million budget and marked the death knell of this flimsy genre. Its filming was marred with controversy as Fox bulldozed some Thai beaches to make them look more paradise-y.
Twenty years after his caning, Michael P. Fay's story remains a curiosity at best, replaced by a multitude of media sensations too many to number (not least of which was the O.J. Simpson murder case the very next month). Vince Vaughn only makes comedies about motor-mouthed losers these days, Claire Danes is operating at a far higher level (though perhaps just as erratically) in the foreign theater on Homeland, and Danny Boyle has an Academy Award. You should still probably be smart about your hash, though.