Just as the Philippines began healing from Claire Danes’s indictment of Manilan society as “ghastly and weird,” Young Hollywood’s reign of terror in Asia has flared up once again. Today’s flash point: Phi Phi Island off the coast of Thailand, where preproduction of the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach has triggered a millennial showdown between environmentalists intent on preserving a pristine beach from Hollywood’s wrecking ball and Thai officials who glimpse Leo-based tourist dividends.
It’s a case of reality mimicking fiction about commerce despoiling art. In Alex Garland’s best-selling novel The Beach, backpackers find an idyllic locale unspoiled by tourism only to polarize into warring factions and destroy their coveted sanctuary. In the current real-life drama, instead of backpackers, the culprits are Hollywood-ized Scottish filmmakers with God complexes. The team of director Danny Boyle and
producer Andrew Macdonald (of Trainspotting/ Shallow Grave fame) discovered a cloistered, hook-shaped beach that was truly Edenic— not only is Maya Beach uninhabited, it is part of a government-protected national park where locals are fined for removing seashells. The filmmakers then applied a typically Hollywood calculus to the locale: in order to attain that natural, untouched-by-human-hands look, they would have to bulldoze the beach and relandscape it, digging about a hundred holes to plant coconut trees— that breezy signifier of otherworldly utopia, but not native to all parts of Thailand.
The film crew’s removal of obstructive sand dunes that block vista shots and pruning of annoying (if authentically vital) foundational vegetation angered Thai environmentalists, who launched a “camp-in” in December, wearing Leo masks and carrying banners reading “Change Your Script, Not Our Beach.” Meanwhile, an editorial in the Bangkok daily The Nation screamed cultural vandalism: “The notorious Leonardo
DiCaprio’s mob has already a widely established record of barbarous assassinations and stultifications of masterpieces such as Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Alexandre Dumas’ ‘Man in the Iron Mask.’ As in their very simplistic minds tropical beaches must have coconut trees, they have proceeded to improve on Maya Beach by another assassination, this time of one of Mother Nature’s creations.”
Both Fox and the Thai government have tried to defuse the conflict through a mixture of hard repression, soft spin, and paltry payola. While the eco-activists were forcibly chased away by provincial administrators with nefarious names like “Headman Red,” Fox shelled out a mere $230,000 to Thai officials in anticipation of future damage while assuring that horticulturists would be deployed to rebuild the beach after the shoot. These token gestures have failed to appease the environmentalists, who have filed for governmental investigation of the forestry chief who rented Maya Beach to Fox in the first place. The response of the official in question has been, to say the least, casually and brutally honest: “Thailand is broke, we need the money the film will bring in.”
And so far, the going price for the beach is about 1 percent of Leo’s projected salary.