Shining light on son's difficult trip to a new home
Hans Petter Moland's "The Beautiful Country" is the story of a harrowing journey, undertaken by a young Vietnamese man in 1990. Binh...
Seattle Times movie critic
Hans Petter Moland's "The Beautiful Country" is the story of a harrowing journey, undertaken by a young Vietnamese man in 1990. Binh (Damien Nguyen) has long been called "bui doi" (less than dust) by his foster family — it's a descriptor commonly applied to Vietnamese children with American fathers. Now a young man, he learns at the beginning of the film that his birth mother — whom he had thought dead — lives in Saigon.
Thus begins a long and difficult trip — which takes him from Saigon (where his mother is a maid) to Texas, via a fishing boat, a Malaysian refugee camp, a trans-Atlantic voyage on a ship that smuggles illegal immigrants, a slave barracks in New York and, finally, a remote Texas ranch — in search of the man (Nick Nolte) in a picture that his mother has given to him.
All of this is rendered with often-vivid details, particularly the murkiness of the boat's hold and the hellish arrival in the U.S., as the refugees slip ashore in the dark, stepping over the bodies of those who didn't survive the ordeal. But the storytelling is problematic — Binh seems uncannily able to find the right people at the right time — and the performances uneven.
Nguyen, himself a Vietnamese refugee, is an earnest and sincere screen presence but a rather deadpan actor. His performance is so internalized that Binh never really registers, and one scene in particular, in which an exasperated Binh loses his temper, just doesn't work at all. Nolte is charismatic, as always, but only appears in the last minutes of the film (despite having top billing). Tim Roth, as he so often does, steals the movie with a nasty little character turn, this time as the cold-eyed captain of the freighter.
"The Beautiful Country" is a well-meaning film, at times achingly so — it's clearly intended to shine a light on forgotten victims of the Vietnam War. While it's too awkwardly filmed to achieve real resonance, there are moments that linger in the memory. The "beautiful country" of the title turns out to be a reference to two countries; two heritages that mingle in a young man, who's found a home far away from home.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org