Though its subject matter the tragedy of the Vietnamese boat people is inherently interesting and its players attractive, "Turtle Beach" is so full of melodramatic hokum that it never rises above superficial soap opera.
Greta Scacchi, who plays Tim Robbins' girlfriend in "The Player," has the lead here as a workaholic Australian photojournalist, and in a pre-credits sequence she is shown shooting pictures in the riot-torn streets of Malaysia.
After the credits it is 10 years later and Scacchi is in Sydney. We learn she is divorced, with two young boys, and still working as a newspaper photojournalist.
She is assigned to interview Joan Chen ("Twin Peaks," "The Last Emperor"), a Vietnam refugee who has married the much-older Australian ambassador (Norman Kaye) to Malaysia. Despite her position, Chen has a reputation as an obsessed champion of the boat people who land at Turtle Beach, much to the embarrassment of Malaysians who don't want them flooding into the country.
In truth, we learn much later, her obsession is less noble and more personal.
After her interview with Chen, Scacchi returns to Malaysia to get the inside scoop on the plight of the boat people. This leads her to witness the brutal slaughter of men, women and children on Turtle Beach by Malaysian villagers, who are portrayed as faceless savages. And eventually, she manages to get inside the way-station for the boat people on Bidong Island, which is more like a military prison camp.
"Turtle Beach" superficially resembles "The Year of Living Dangerously," but is undermined by simplistic dialogue (Chen explains everything the film has already shown us) and obvious plotting (government paranoia plays a large part in the film's twists and turns), and by a strange concentration on sex in particular Chen's kinky baby-doll act with her husband.
The filmmakers would like to have us think of Chen's work for the boat people as tying in directly with Scacchi's neglect of her own two children, but it's quite a stretch.
In the end, the film is little more than platitudes mixed with exploitation, and certainly a waste of Scacchi's and Chen's talents.
"Turtle Beach" is rated R for considerable graphic violence, as well as sex, nudity and profanity.