The Beach

When Americans are tourists abroad, what do they do? Learn about another culture or have fun together? In Brokedown Palace (1999), two Ohio teenage girls are not interested in Bangkok, check into a sleezy hotel, sneak into the pool at a five-star hotel, get caught possessing dope, and end up in to jail. In this year’s The Beach, Richard (played by Leonardo diCaprio) is bored with Bangkok’s massive golden Reclining Buddha, is turned off by the commercial aspects of the tourist part of town, finds Westerners in five-star hotels watching a rerun of the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, and instead seeks adventure. Directed by Danny Boyle and based on the novel by Alex Garland, The Beach is a tale of a teenager who tries to find himself by meeting a challenge. The first challenge, to drink snake blood, is over quickly. The more enduring challenge is presented in the form of a map of an idyllic island (actually, Ko Phi Phi Leh in the Gulf of Siam), inaccessible to ordinary tourists. The map is attached to the door of Richard’s room of his cheap hotel by “Daffy Duck” (played by Robert Carlyle), a crazed Westerner, before he commits suicide. He then persuades two French tourists, Françoise and Étienne (played by Virginie Ledoyen and Guillaume Canet), who enjoy having sex with each other, to go to the island. On the way, they pass through Thai beach resorts filled with decadent Westerners who swim, smoke dope, drink booze, and otherwise appear to be funloving members of the pampered middle class, and Richard gives a copy of the map to two guys who befriend him (evidently at Phuket). When they reach as far as Thai transportation will take them, they swim to the island, arriving near a marijuana field guarded by armed Thai drug lords. After evading capture and possible death, they go inland and find a commune of Westerners around a pristine lagoon led by Sal (played by Tilda Swinton), who proposes the key decisions and then secures unanimous consent from the rest. The rest of the story focuses on how the commune operates. The Thais have allowed them to live on an isolated part of the island for about six years on the condition that the population will remain small so that their fields will be kept a secret from the authorities. Richard, Françoise, and Étienne are allowed to stay in the commune, where everyone performs a useful task to make the community self-sufficient. Richard shows his skill at spearfishing, kills a small shark in the lagoon, displaces Étienne as the lover of Françoise, and accompanies and sleeps with Sal on a shopping trip to a nearby tourist island to exchange marijuana for rice, tampons, size AAA batteries, and the other consumerist needs that members of the commune have not shaken. In one of many voice-overs, Richard confides “I found my vocation–the pursuit of pleasure.” But, as the tagline of the film proclaims, “Innocence never lasts forever.” When the two guys use the map to arrive on the secret island with girlfriends, Sal bans Richard to the highlands to watch the four until he can get the map from them, and his sanity slips away. When the four newcomers walk down the paths of the marijuana field, the Thais shoot them. Since the arrival of more outsiders violates the agreement with the Westerners on the island, the Thais go to the commune to order them to leave and “Forget about Thailand.” After the tense encounter, Sal decides to stay and die, Richard stops the breathing of a Swede who was slowly dying of a shark attack, the group departs on a Titanic-type raft, and the adventure ends in a cybercafe, where Richard accesses e-mail from his parents and Étienne, who attaches a photograph of a happy scene of all the members of the commune. The Beach, in short, shows that the X Generation of Westerners are tired of democracy, individualism, and materialism, but revel in mindless hedonism, with parallels to Apocalypse Now. Unlike Brokedown Palace, the Thai government approved the filming, which shows that beach resort tourists are the latest to exploit Thailand’s physical beauty without considering that they have a lot to learn from the serenity of its culture. Indeed, there was so much rearranging of the flora of the island that Thai environmentalists protested during the filming of The Beach, a fact denied to the public by the news media in Los Angeles. MH

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