Foreign intrigue

Hopefully in "Return to Paradise," we were able to give the audience a question," says Anne Heche, who plays attorney Beth Eastern in the new psychological thriller. Like the filmmakers themselves, working on the politically provocative motion picture filled Heche's head with inner conflicts.

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"‘How truthful am I about my responsibilities?' ‘Do I go into another country and abide by their laws?' As Americans, we're taught a certain freedom and then we're very disrespectful of other places.

"The Malaysian government isn't pretending they don't have these laws," she continues. "They have signs plastered all over the airport the second you walk off the plane: ‘You will be hanged if you ... ' If you're going to choose not to see that, then that's your responsibility."

"Return to Paradise" is a remake of the French film "Force Majeure" (a legal term that translates as "act of God") which was inspired by the real-life case of two Australian men who were sentenced to death in Malaysia for drug trafficking. The mother of one made him a cause célèbre, garnering attention from the international press and human-rights organizations. More recently, a media brouhaha grew around the American teen-ager who was caned in Singapore for vandalism.

These cases were very much on the minds of screenwriter Wesley Strick, a former rock journalist for Creem and Rolling Stone, and director Joseph Ruben, a University of Michigan alumnus who made the cult film "The Pom-Pom Girls" and subsequently carved a niche in Hollywood as the director of thrillers like "The Stepfather," "Sleeping with the Enemy" and "The Good Son."

After working as a script doctor in addition to writing his own screenplays ("Final Analysis," "Cape Fear"), Strick jumped at the chance to work with Ruben. He watched "Force Majeure" and began reworking the first draft of the American remake, which was written by Bruce Robinson. Strick read Robinson's script before going to bed and "woke up in a cold sweat, it had such an immediate and intense emotional charge to it."

That version, which both Strick and Ruben call "brilliant," had a problematic ending -- all the events turn out to be a "fever dream." "I just felt that putting an audience through the experience of being in this situation, and then you learn it's a dream, they would legitimately hate you," says Ruben. "We really wanted to make it more concrete and real in a sense."

Because of the politically sensitive and provocative nature of the film, Ruben and the producers opted to film in nearby Thailand as well as Macao and Hong Kong. But Ruben traveled to Malaysia with some crew members to get a feel for the country. They sat in on trials and were able to visit the actual Kuala Lumpur prison where the Australians were held.

"They were about to tear it down," says Ruben, "so they've opened it up as a tourist attraction. The room where people were hanged, there are sound effects that they turn on: heartbeats and screams. "It was actually very chilling and effective, in a primitive sort of way."

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