Heaven's Burning

aka You Don’t Know What Love Is (Craig Lahiff, 1997)

In 1988 Ross Gibson nominated Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) as the film which broke definitively with the landscape tradition of 1970s period films, opening up Australian cinema to “international ‘contamination'” (1). One of the most internationally contaminated road movies to emerge from the pack in the 1990s was Heaven’s Burning. More than any of the genre’s critical or popular successes, including The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994), Doing Time for Patsy Cline (Chris Kennedy, 1997), True Love and Chaos (Stavros Efthymiou, 1996) and Kiss or Kill (Bill Bennett, 1997), Heaven’s Burning remaps the Australian landscape to speak directly to the experience of international contamination. Moreover, it does so with the distinct Australian accent of playwright and screenwriter, Louis Nowra, keen observer of the legacy of Hawke-Keating’s deregulated Australia.

My take on Heaven’s Burning is forever contaminated by that most international of media events, the car crash in Paris which killed the ill-fated princess and her playboy lover on 31 August 1997 — the same Sunday afternoon that Heaven’s Burning screened at the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards in St. Kilda and the television broadcast of the Essendon game was cancelled in favour of compulsive coverage of Diana, Dodi and their death drive. I might be the only viewer for whom the sublime image of the lovers engulfed in flames in an overturned car at the end of Heaven’s Burning segues into the grainy television image of that other l’amour fou and its more sombre ending. (And always, in the cut between these two images, is the cancelled broadcast of the Essendon game…).

I suspect that my thinking on Australian films is always contaminated by this kind of immediacy, by the films being so close to home, by the feeling of being implicated somehow in their Australian-ness. A consequence is that when Heaven’s Burning is dismissed by critics for its aesthetic flaws, for its failure to reach the standard of the well-made film, I keep my counsel, after all, my reasons for caring about this film are tainted. To defend my interest in the film (in contrast to my deep boredom with Priscilla, for instance) I want to argue that Heaven’s Burning implicates me for various reasons: it retains an acute, critical sense of Treasurer Keating’s deregulated Australia even as it tries to exploit the Asian film market; it remaps the Australian landscape for a tourist gaze and a corporate takeover even as it peoples it with the road movie’s cast of outlaws, ratbags and no-hopers; its characters are beyond integration into a multicultural ideal; three out of four of its father-son couples are spectacularly non-viable; and Russell Crowe takes the recessive Australian hero (Colin) to a new level of passivity while Youki Kudoh’s inspired rendition of Midori’s transformation from bride, hostage, bank robber to romantic outlaw leaves the Hollywood action heroine in the shade. I will argue these points, but in truth it’s the cosmopolitan, art-directed beginning of the film and the inflated, sublime, melancholic ending that matter to me, that implicate me in being here, in being Australian.

Heaven’s Burning consciously exploits the landscape tradition for a tourist gaze and for an elusive southeast Asian film market. But it does so in two ways that emphasise Australia’s deterritorialisation in the deregulated global economy. The film opens in Sydney in the corporate-tourist precinct of international hotels which offer Japanese honeymooners and businessmen a Greek restaurant and harbour views as part of a packaged experience of Australia. Midori’s new husband, Yukio (Kenji Isohura), combines business with his honeymoon, comparing Australia (‘the largest branch outside Japan’) to Greece (‘full of ruins’). This erasure of national borders (and national autonomy) is further emphasised when news of Midori’s faked kidnapping and infidelity is broadcast direct to Japan, making it impossible for Yukio to return home without shame.

The second kind of deterritorialisation occurs in the remapping of Australia which makes a geographical impossibility of Midori and Colin’s escape route from Sydney via the South Australian saltpans, through the outback of New South Wales and then to the beach. (This deranged geography is probably a result of the investment in the film by the South Australian Film Corporation; Adelaide is an unconvincing substitute for Sydney in the bank robbery sequence). At the point where the seasoned viewer of the Australian landscape begins to accept the surreal geography of Heaven’s Burning, the film gives Yukio a map which confirms that indeed the naive viewer is meant to believe that the outlaw couple and their multiple pursuers are travelling west from Sydney towards Broken Hill. However, this map only adds to the confusion when the lovers meet their destiny at a beach not too far from outback Australia. The film’s re-mapping of Australia as a montage of disparate locations serves both a tourist and an investment imaginary where all destinations are virtual. In this sense, international contamination implies the disappearance of Australia into a global geography based on flows of finance, information technology and mobile professionals between international cities. This global logic applies to the Australian film industry and Heaven’s Burning knows it.

There is however another logic to the film which proposes that outback Australia offers a (mostly dystopian) landscape of open roads and empty spaces as some sort of reprieve from international contamination by corporate culture. The reprieve takes on different forms, embodied in the film by four father-son figures, three of whom prove non-viable. The first to collapse is the relationship between Yukio and his corporate boss. As Yukio transforms himself from team player to avenging bikie, his deference towards his boss turns into aggressive demands for a bike and a gun. Yukio’s transformation is complete when the gun goes off, blasting a hole through his boss’s head. This comic book style of exploitation humour extends to the destruction of the second father-son figure, the Afghani torturer, Boorjan, and his bank-robber son, Mahood. Their presence in Australia is clearly marked as part of the refugee rather than the corporate flow of people around the globe. Boorjan’s Muslim family is part of a diaspora which retains its language, customs and religion although there are signs of assimilation of the daughter through information technology and of the sons through the working class vocation of bank robber. The attempt of Boorjan to inculcate his son with his own code of honour comes to grief when Mahood is unable to pluck out Colin’s eyeball to avenge the death of his brother. One way of looking at the collapse of patriarchal authority in the case of the displaced Japanese and Afghani men would be to see them as undomesticated, as no longer ‘at home’, as liable to go feral once they venture beyond their respective communities of corporates and refugees. Another way to understand the collapse of paternal authority in the film is to link it to the nostalgia of the men’s movement for old-fashioned technologies and traditional codes of masculinity: Yukio’s frontier technology of horsepower and the gun and Boorjan’s toolkit of torture instruments are mere toys, irrelevant to real power in a postindustrial economy.

It seems that neither Japanese nor Afghani codes of honour can seriously contaminate the Australian ethic of a fair go which motivates Colin and his father Cam (Ray Barrett). However, their Australian way of life (the iconic quality projected on screen by Crowe and Barrett) has long since broken down; they too are undomesticated and their technology is outdated. Colin’s car repair business has gone broke and his father’s farm is beset by drought, kangaroos and birds. Bird calls are cries of terror to Cam who takes polaroid photos of himself to prove he still exists. In this broken down state, Colin and Cam are easy targets for Yukio. Their deaths are spectacles of passivity in the face of an avenging passion that is beyond their emotional range. In a controversial scene which was censored and then restored to the release print, Cam is confronted by Yukio beneath a windmill, a poor piece of technology with which to fight a drought — or survive a deregulated rural economy. As it transpires, international contamination has spread as far as the economic and spiritual outpost of the bush legend, represented by the windmill. Cam draws on his bitter memory of the Japanese in World War II to lecture Yukio on the ‘karma’ in store for Japan’s ‘little people’ and their ‘little island’. In Cam’s mind karmic retribution will be delivered by nature which no amount of silicon chip technology can defeat. However, instead of a giant tidal wave, a laughable kangaroo delivers Yukio’s karma in the next scene, wrecking his motorbike without deterring him from his quest. Relying on an outdated, laconic masculinity to disarm the bad guys, Cam and his son bring death upon each other, failing to take the most rudimentary steps to protect themselves from economic and technological forces they barely comprehend.

The fourth father-son figure involved in the impossible cross-country tour is the middle-aged cop, Bishop (Anthony Phelan), and his young rookie (Matthew Dyktynski). This patriarchal couple mixes the old Anglo-Celtic with a new European sense of national identity. Ultimately, like the film’s viewer, Bishop and his rookie fail to influence the course of events but they do survive to witness the final scene and to register its meaning. With their surveillance technology, helicopters and police cars they are better equipped than Cam and Colin to survive in the new, deterritorialised economy. Whether there is any virtue in mere survival is a longstanding question for critics of Australian cinema, a question which is posed by the film’s ending.

The father-son figures in Heaven’s Burning are divided into active comic book avengers who cannot be integrated (into the narrative or into some residual ideal of Australian multiculturalism) and passive icons of Australian masculinity whose limited actions cannot hold death at bay. This stand-off on the frontier of masculinity leaves the field of action wide open for the heroine, Midori. The only other significant action-heroine of contemporary Australian cinema, Deborah-Lee Furness as Asta in Shame (Steve Jodrell, 1987), does not enjoy the extraordinary transformative powers of Midori; ultimately Asta loses control of the narrative and is confronted by the limits of her power to act. Heaven’s Burning opens with an extreme close-up of Midori’s eye, looking for a way out of the art-directed, corporate landscape in which she finds herself playing the role of the demure Japanese bride, honeymooning in Sydney. Midori’s first act is to re-script her role by staging her own kidnapping. Her plans come undone and she finds herself taken hostage in a bank robbery, only to be saved from certain death by one of Colin’s rare actions. From this point on Midori finds her genre in the road movie, learning to improvise, saving Colin, stealing a truck, and staging a second, more successful bank robbery. With her heroic credentials established, Midori takes charge of her look, providing the costumes, make-up, hairstyle and the setting for her final transformation into an incendiary image of l’amour fou. Colin’s passivity and Cam’s hostility cannot dampen her spirit — in the outback she can breathe. Right up until her final breath Midori contaminates the film with an ethic of self-invention in the space of the road movie whose only border is death.

If the opening shot of the film belongs to Midori, so too does the film’s inspired finale which begins at a Bachelor and Spinster ball and ends in apocalyptic flames on the beach. The ball, held in a marquee beneath a grain silo, provides an opportunity for nostalgia, reinforced by Colin and Midori’s final, slow dance to the Bee Gees singing, ‘Don’t forget to remember me’. However, their nostalgia is not for a bygone era but for death which awaits them at dawn. When Yukio shoots Colin and wounds Midori, she tells him ‘You don’t know what love is’ before she kills him. At this point the chase is over and the credits could roll, but the film has a final desire. It wants its doomed lovers to die on the beach. This requires the dying Midori to take the wheel for a final time, to outrun the police, and to overturn the car on the beach, accompanied not by the Bee Gees but by Wagner. If this hallucinatory drive induces laughter at first, the sequence, including Colin’s attempt to explain ‘the beach’ to Midori, outlasts incredulity. At the beach, the viewer is rewarded with three telling shots. The first is a sublime close-up of Midori’s face shimmering through the flames as she farewells Colin and puts the gun to her head in a final, assured act. The second is of Bishop and his rookie on the beach, witnessing the explosion of the car. There is a poignant gesture here which has as much power for me as Midori’s face through the flames. The overturned car burns as Bishop sits on the beach with his arms around his knees and looks out to sea. The film leaves him there as the final shot cranes up and away from the beach, pulling out to sea to reveal the coastline of an island — a place to leave behind, to depart from by air. Unless you are on that plane, however, you are still here, implicated like me in Bishop’s contemplative gesture of survival — sitting on the beach looking out to sea as heaven burns.

Heaven’s Burning is deeply ambivalent about the future of this island-continent in the Asia-Pacific region. The final shot raises the possibility of abandoning the project of Australia altogether. The film has shown its landscape to be a montage of images peopled by blind, stoned and otherwise ill-equipped figures, most of whom are male. Fathers have nothing to hand onto their sons except outmoded technology and fundamentalist ethics. When Midori holds the gun to her head and squeezes the trigger the narrative comes to a spectacular end. Her eye which opened the film, looking for a way out, is transferred to Bishop looking out to sea, and then to the viewer contemplating the final shot of the receding coastline. Like Bishop, I sit and I contemplate, in between narratives, sidelined from the field of action which opened so briefly for Midori.

What virtue is there in sharing Bishop’s gesture of survival, in facing away from the apocalyptic scene on the beach? I would not notice Bishop except that he is sitting on the beach. As the cops gather at the beach, at the end of the chase, what kind of action is sitting? In the context of the genre’s conventional acts of escaping, chasing, driving, robbing, kissing, dancing, killing and dying, it strikes me that sitting is an act of self-possession, different from standing by helplessly as the car burns. At a stretch, perhaps it is Bishop who proves a viable father-figure in relation to Midori in that they share the capacity for self-possession under duress. It is this persistently viable figure of the good Aussie bloke and his resourceful ‘daughter’ that implicates me once again in the nationalist project of Australian cinema. Midori and Bishop are an unexpected addition to the existing pantheon of fathers and daughters who have a long tradition of upsetting mateship and landscape as the key to national identity (2). As Midori burns and Bishop sits, I am left to contemplate with delight the international contamination of the father-daughter figure – a figure which implicates me, profoundly, in the masculinist ethos of Australian cinema.


  1. Ross Gibson, “Formative Landscapes” in Back of Beyond: Discovering Australian Film and Television, ed. Scott Murray, Sydney: AFC, 1988, p.31
  2. See William D. Routt, “The Fairest Child of the Motherland: Colonialism and Family in the Films of the 1920s and 1930s” in The Australian Screen, ed. Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan, Ringwood: Penguin, 1989, pp.28-52

About The Author

Felicity Collins is Adjunct Associate Professor, Creative Arts and English, La Trobe University.

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