The image of refugee children fleeing a war-ravaged land is painfully relevant. The Australian TV movie, “Which Way Home” (at 5 and 8 p.m. today on TNT cable, with encores throughout the week), dramatizes the odyssey of seven Southeast Asian children and their gritty savior, an American nurse played by Cybill Shepherd.
The production’s visual scale is ambitious. Shot in Thailand, New Zealand and Australia, the story catches the turmoil, fear and heroism of a band of Cambodian and Vietnamese orphans led by Shepherd through refugee camps, rice paddies and villages to the comparative safety of a fishing boat.
It is at this point, midway through the three-hour program, that the horror intensifies as the script by Aussie Michael Laurence becomes a Boat People saga. Shepherd never looks scruffy enough to be credible and Aussie director Cal Schultz packs the show with too many obvious conventions of the romance genre, but there are moments of great tension too.
Not all the kids make it, and the stench of death hovers in the smoky sunlight. In the most gripping and violent scene, a band of Malaysian sea-faring pirates raid Shepherd’s creaky boat, chase the group up a black sandy beach, rape the oldest girl, shoot a tiny child on the run and are about to finish off the rest when interrupted by the story’s rugged, reluctant hero (Australian actor John Waters as a charter boat captain).
The production is most successful when telling its story through the eyes of the children, whose faces you don’t forget. The abstraction “Boat People” becomes human. It is least urgent when developing the romance between the nurse and the sea captain, an utterly dispensable subplot.
But as contemporary history, as a Cambodian/Vietnamese refugee story, the production casts a timely, uncomfortable light on other people fleeing terror half a world away.