Ambitious, lyrical and sweetly sad in its underlying optimism in the face of bitter hardship, “The Beautiful Country” is a true hands-across-the-water effort, both with its cast and crew and with its far-ranging scope.
Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland has crafted an often mesmerizing tale of a “bui doi,” or “less than dust,” a term applied to outcast Vietnamese children of American fathers.
Drawing on her own experiences as daughter of a Filipino woman and American father, screenwriter Sabina Murray crafts a compelling chronicle with a quietly iron-willed protagonist.
The film powerfully explores cultural prejudices lingering from the Vietnam War and the yearning that drives an abandoned child to seek connections with his parents and secure a sense of belonging.
His journey unfolds slowly and deliberately, yet despite its length and measured pace, “The Beautiful Country” moves briskly and remains an absorbing narrative from start to finish.
Throughout the film, Binh (played by newcomer Damien Nguyen) endures an endless succession of social structures that leave him alienated and downtrodden. With no clues to his origin save a photo of an American G.I. and a Vietnamese woman holding a baby, Binh has been raised in stoic servitude by a foster family that treats him like an unwanted, burdensome relation.
Binh is called “Pigface” and forced to eat apart from others. Mothers tell their children to avoid him, because he has the face of the enemy.
As a young man in 1990, Binh learns his mother, Mai (Thi Kim Xuan) is alive in Saigon, and he sets out for a tearful reunion that initially promises the love and acceptance he always has longed for.
He, his mother and his young half-brother, Tam (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh) enjoy a brief period of domestic joy during which Binh learns that Mai was happily married to his father (Nick Nolte), but the U.S. serviceman simply vanished one day.
Circumstance forces Binh to flee with Tam, and he sets out on a quest that takes him from Vietnam, through perilous sea voyages to a Malaysian refugee camp and eventually to virtual slave labor in New York City to pay off his passage.
The film was shot in Vietnam, New York and Texas, each contributing their own vistas of “beautiful country” through cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh that alternates between dreamscape and grimy reality.
Much of the time, Binh is accompanied by a beautiful Chinese woman, Ling (Bai Ling), who sells her body as her means to a better life. Binh and Ling’s delicate relationship — they’re not quite lovers, not quite siblings, definitely more than friends — carries him through much misery and cruelty.
No matter where he is, Binh finds himself on the low end of the social ladder, even aboard ship, where he is subject to a merciless hierarchy among the refugees.
“You will always be out of place, wherever you go,” Binh is told by Capt. Oh (Tim Roth), a man with a strange mix of sympathy and ruthlessness who commands the rusty freighter carrying him to America and a chance to find his father.
In his first film role, Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and moved to the United States with his family as a child, manages the difficult task of playing a man of deep internal conviction and commitment hidden behind a passive facade.
Nguyen drops his guard long enough to show the warmth, humor and decency inherent in Binh, yet he keeps a close check on his emotions, suitable for a character accustomed to abuse and exclusion since boyhood.
Amid adversity, there are many grace notes to Binh’s journey, including an understated closing image with surprising power to linger in your memory long after the film ends.
Binh encounters ugliness, greed, corruption, but also beauty, understanding, kindness and deep compassion along the way. He’s richer for the journey. So are we.