`Beautiful Country' tells a universal tale of struggle


September 02, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Beautiful Country, the story of a Vietnamese teen trying to find his American GI father, is a tragic story of clashing cultures and disconnected lives. While the narrative unfolds in a laconic style that sometimes drags, the universality of its themes and the steadfastness of its hero mark Country as a valuable contribution to the growing canon of post-Vietnam War films.

Directed by Norwegian Hans Petter Moland from a script by Sabina Murray, the film centers on Binh (newcomer Damien Nguyen), a Vietnamese teen who's an outcast in his own country. Half-American, half-Vietnamese, he's one of thousands of wartime offspring dismissed as "bui doi," or "less than dust." Kicked out of his foster home because of the shame he brings to it, Binh heads for Saigon, where his mother - whom he has long thought dead - still lives.

He finds her, but his misery continues unabated; she's spiritually broken, working as a servant in the house of a physically and emotionally abusive upper-class family. Their reunion is joyous, but the respite is temporary; Binh is soon forced to work in the house as well, and when a tragic misunderstanding forces him to flee, he's off to America (with his young half-brother in tow) to find his dad.

The Beautiful Country stubbornly refuses to lighten its tone; unlike many recent films centering on the immigrant experience in America, the journey depicted here is disheartening at best, degrading and even deadly, at worst. A little leavening might have made the film easier to take, but that's probably not the effect Moland and Murray were after. Instead, we're left thinking Binh deserves a break, certain there must be a little sunshine around some corner. Here's betting more than a few immigrants feel that way, too, and that ill fortune continues for them longer than it does for us; after all, we've only got to live the experience vicariously for two hours.

Moland keeps the story heading in a relentlessly straight line, as Binh bounces from Saigon to a Malaysian refugee camp to a trawler carrying illegal human cargo to New York's Chinatown to, finally, a decaying Texas ranch where Binh's father, Steve (Nick Nolte, who plays the spiritually drained better than anyone), remembers Vietnam with a surprising tenderness. The film plays out as a metaphor for the scars left on both sides by the Vietnam War, and reveals them as deep, indeed, but not insurmountable.

Along the way, Binh's journey is propelled by such unlikely allies as a prostitute (Bai Ling) who recognizes that helping him may be the last good act left within her, and a ship's captain (Tim Roth) who's too bitter to care and too scarred to notice.

Both Vietnam and the United States are referred to in the film as beautiful countries, suggesting that wherever you call home is as beautiful as one's circumstances allow.

The Beautiful Country is not a happy film by any means, but it does offer a fragile hope, that beauty exists at the end of every journey, if only one has the strength to finish the trip.

The Beautiful Country

Starring Damien Nguyen, Bai Ling, Nick Nolte

Directed by Hans Petter Moland

Released by Sony Pictures Classics (in Vietnamese and English, with English subtitles)

Time 137 minutes

Rated R (language and a crude sexual reference)

Sun Score *** (three stars)

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