EmptySYDNEY -- With his debut feature "Lucky Miles," Michael James Rowland leaches the politics out of the prickly topic of illegal immigration and turns out an unexpectedly amiable comedy. The narrative -- which follows a motley crew of asylum seekers stumbling through the Outback -- lacks momentum, and the film falls short of the "Gods Must Be Crazy"-style mayhem for which it appears to be shooting. But its congeniality is disarming, and the themes are slyly conscience-pricking.
Inspired by a number of real-life events, "Miles" features a cast of unknowns, which, together with frequent subtitles, could limit accessibility upon its local release. It's already proven to be a festival favorite in Australia, and Cineclick Asia has picked it up for international distribution.
Setting the action in 1990, Rowland harks back to a time before the nation, or at least its government, seemed to lose any sense of compassion for the Third World refugees seeking sanctuary on its shores. It starts on a cheery note as a group of Cambodians and Iraqis wade ashore after being dropped off by Indonesian people-smugglers on a deserted stretch of coastline in Western Australia.
Their joy soon turns to despair as the boat chugs off. They crest the sand dunes to discover, instead of the promised bus stop to Perth, an abundance of what is referred to by locals as "bugger-all."
They splinter into two groups: Iraqis heading one way into nothingness, Cambodians the other. The Cambodians are quickly picked up by police after they stop at an isolated pub to ask directions, though a fateful trip to the outhouse means one, Arun (Kenneth Moraleda), escapes the roundup. Meanwhile, a bunch of laconic army reservists on border patrol have been dispatched to investigate a suspicious fishing boat in the area.
They pick up Arun's tracks but soon discover three sets of footprints: A couple of only slightly strained plot contrivances have thrown the Cambodian together with one of the Iraqis, a structural engineer named Youssif (Rodney Afif), and Ramelan (Srisacd Sacdpraseuth), the Indonesian boat owner's ne'er-do-well nephew.
The ill-matched trio unites around a single water bottle and shared survival instincts, though the two refugees wonder how much they can trust a man who sadly informs them that his mother died before he was born. Arun's sketchy map gives no sense of the unpopulated vastness that surrounds them and sends them off on an elliptical odyssey that sorely tests their uneasy alliance.
Underpinning the naive slapstick and droll verbal clashes is a deep seam of humanism that makes its point about tolerance of difference gently. Heated debate about national identity and the ethics of detention have no place in this comic fable, and neither do cultural stereotypes.
Discord is rooted in the need for survival in a strange and hostile environment. Even the army trackers seem motivated by a desire to save the skins of the bumbling trespassers.
Moraleda is particularly effective as the politely resolute Arun, dogged in his determination to reach Perth and the father he has never met. Afif gets great comic mileage out of a centerpiece scene involving a cobbled-together Jeep.
Indian composer Trilok Gurtu contributes a dramatic percussive score, while cinematographer Geoff Burton does a terrific job conveying the enormity of the brutally beautiful West Australian landscapes.
Short of Easy
Director/co-producer: Michael James Rowland
Screenwriters: Helen Barnes, Michael James Rowland
Producers: Jo Dyer, Lesley Dyer
Executive producer: Michael Bourchier
Director of photography: Geoff Burton
Production designer: Pete Baxter
Music: Trilok Gurtu
Costume designer: Ruth de la Lande
Editor: Henry Dangar
Arun: Kenneth Moraleda
Youssif: Rodney Afif
Ramelan: Srisacd Sacdpraseuth
O'Shane: Glenn Shea
Greg: Don Hany
Tom: Sean Mununggurr
Muluk: Sawung Jabo
Abdu: Arif Hidayat
Running time -- 104 minutes
No MPAA rating