Damien Nguyen as Binh
Nick Nolte as Steve
Ling Bai as Ling
Tim Roth as Captain Oh
Temuera Morrison as Snakeyes
Thi Hoa Mai as Wa
Thi Kim Xuan Chau as Mai
Thu Anh as Mrs. Hoa
Xuan Phuc Dins as Pham
Damien Hung as Eng
John Hussey as Jerry
Duc Thuan Khuong as Mrs. Hoa’s son
Glen Bradford as Wayne
Dang Quoc Thinh Tran as Tam
Van Hai Nguyen as Git Wo
A stirring journey from Vietnam to Texas, which gives the clearest picture of the Asian immigrant experience then has previously been seen on film.
Binh (Damien Nguyen) is the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a soldier stationed in Vietnam during the war, and his mixed blood makes him an outcast, Bui Doi or “less than dust,” in his village. Raised by his grandparents, he seeks out his mother when he learns that she is working as a servant in a rich Shanghai household. After a lethal accident, Binh goes on the run with his much younger brother, and after meeting a Chinese prostitute named Ling (Bai Ling) at an internment camp, he begins the long journey to America hoping to find his father.
Walk around any Asian sector of a big city and you’ll see hundreds, even thousands, of similar stories. Chances are that those not born in this country will have gone through some sort of ordeal to get here. The Beautiful Country tells the story of just one such journey, touching upon all aspects of the experience, including the rather secretive Asian slave trade. The honesty and realism with which the subject matter is handled is not quite as surprising as realizing that the man behind the camera is not Asian himself.
Nevertheless, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland does a fine job telling Binh’s story in five clearly delineated acts and locales: Saigon, the Chinese internment camp, Binh’s boat trip to America, New York City, and finally, his search through Texas for his American father. Some of the acts turn out better than others, while others go on just a bit too long.
Binh’s journey may only seem less interesting as it goes along, because the first act in Vietnam is so strong, every bit as good as any other modern drama coming out of Asia. Almost a story within the larger story, Binh tries to find the mother he presumed dead, because he needs to connect with someone after being an outsider his entire life. The happiness of their reunion turns sour when his mother’s rich employer, who treats Binh with more disdain than his village, is accidentally killed. Binh goes on the run with his much younger brother, presumably from another father, but winds up in an internment camp where he meets Ling, a Chinese woman who uses her body to survive.
Their attempt to escape to America leads to the toughest and most tragic portion of the film, seeing how Asians who have nothing are forced and tricked into slavery to attain their freedom. After paying a heavy toll to be stowed away in the cargo hold of a freight liner, Binh and Ling face a treacherous journey, leading to many deaths due to starvation and lack of water. This leads to the film’s most tragic moment, but it just pushes Binh harder to survive.
The next section is the weakest, as the real-life struggles of Asians in New York City is watered down with an unconvincing attempt to develop a romance between Binh and Ling. Ultimately, New York is only a weigh station on the road to Binh’s real destination. He is finally able to track his father down to a farm in Texas, where he has working as a laborer. Blinded during the war, his father, played by Nick Nolte, doesn’t know Binh is his son, and the film’s conclusion may be more poignant because of it.
Overall, it’s an interesting journey to experience, and Binh is the perfect touchstone through which you can watch this very real story unfold. Until Bai Ling’s character shows up, you almost feel like you’re watching a documentary, something that should be credited to the amazing performance by Damien Nguyen, an impressive newcomer who literally has to carry this movie, appearing in every scene but holding his weight against far more experienced actors like Ling, Roth and Nolte. For the most part, Binh is sullen and quiet, but there’s also a subdued anger to the character that Nguyen portrays well.
Playing a prostitute isn’t too much of a stretch for Bai Ling, but this may be the first time where you really feel that she’s putting her all into the performance. Like Binh, she comes across as being a real person. Nolte only appears in the movie for ten minutes, but you’re immediately reminded why he was considered such a busy actor back in the ’70s and ’80s. He does an especially convincing job handling the blindness of his character.
The Beautiful Country has some powerful dramatic moments, but overall, it’s a bit uneven. It would have benefited greatly from a ten to fifteen minute trim as most of the segments go on for too long. The other major stumbling block is the decision to switch to English midway through the film, because the broken English conversations between Nguyen and Bai Ling often detract from the words they are saying.
Still, one has to give director Hans Petter Moland credit for the beautiful way he pulls the scenes together and make everything look great despite the obvious low budget of this production. The terrific cinematography, especially in the Vietnam and Texas locations, will leave you wondering which is the beautiful country of the title.
The Bottom Line:
Though by no means a perfect movie, Binh’s fascinating journey to find his parents is particularly moving when you consider that millions of Asians had to make similar journeys to get to this country.
The Beautiful Country opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.