The soul-wrenching search for a beautiful country
It is an ugly world Binh finds himself in, no matter where he goes.
In his native Vietnamese village, Binh (Damien Nguyen) is a borderline outcast thanks to his unusual height, which marks him as the offspring of a Vietnamese-American wartime romance.
In Saigon, where he moves as a young man, Binh finds a moment of happiness in being reunited with his mother, Mai (Thi Kim Xuan). But Mai works as a domestic for a wealthy family headed by a witchly matriarch and her reprehensible son. The atmosphere for the servants is so oppressive that Binh must stand silent in the face of the abuses his mother suffers.
After the Saigon situation hits its inevitable breaking point, Binh, with his 4-year-old half-brother Tam (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh) in tow, board a miserable raft and set to sea. Binh brings with him the money Mai has given him for passage, and something else ” her marriage certificate, with an address for Binh’s father in Houston, Texas. Binh now has a destination, a place that might give him a sense of being home and with family. But the boat lands far short of America, and Binh and Tam land in a Malaysian refugee camp, two more of the infamous “boat people” who fled Southeast Asia in the early ’80s.
A friendship with the prostitute Ling (Bai Ling) allows Binh to escape the camp and embark on another boat. Binh and Ling make it, finally, to America, but not without a large dose of hardship and heartache during the crossing. In New York City, Binh is put to work in a Chinatown restaurant and thrown into a prison-style dorm, the deal he made to pay for his escape. Compounding his difficulties, he looks on as Ling, for whom he has some romantic affection, continues making a living by trading on her sex appeal.
Directed by Norway’s Hans Petter Moland, “The Beautiful Country” (showing tonight and Wednesday at the Wheeler Opera House) reveals Binh’s journey as a search for dignity as much as for a decent place to lay his head. Stoically portrayed by Nguyen, Binh suffers all the evils the world has to throw at him. Emphasizing the point that he is a man without a land are not one, but two acquaintances ” a cold-hearted boat captain (Tim Roth) and an overexperienced refugee (Chapman To) ” who tell Binh point-blank: “There’s no country in world that wants you.”
Yet Binh, in the unsinkable manner of the immigrant certain of greener pastures, succumbs to none of it. He turns down an offer to take part in the human-smuggling trade. He was unable to stand up for his mother back in Saigon, but in America, he finds the strength, the freedom, to act as protector to Ling. Through adversity, he has become stronger. As he heads out of New York, on the final leg of his travels, Binh is confident and able to stand up for himself. If the world hasn’t saved a place for him, he will make his own.
“The Beautiful Country” makes all of this not only palatable, but moving and maddening. It is exceptionally filmed, from the gorgeous Vietnamese landscapes to the dismal locations in boats and refugee camps. Moland’s unrushed direction allows each crushing episode of Binh’s journey to have a maximum of emotional wallop. The camera never strays far from Binh, yet Moland makes history a hefty backdrop to this very personal story, touching on the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the flight of the boat people and the horror of human trafficking.
“The Beautiful Country” also holds America up as a beacon of freedom, and makes only a slight brush with overweaning nationalistic pride in the process. At a Texas gas station, Binh encounters a Vietnam vet missing half an arm. After an initial moment of discomfort, the vet flashes a smile and gives Binh a smile. The next ride he gets is with a family of Mexicans, whom Binh mistakes for Chinese. They, too, are more than happy to give Binh a lift. The sappy interlude would be ridiculous if they weren’t such a contrast with the tone of the rest of the film.
And what an ending. Binh’s meeting with his father (Nick Nolte) is not one of instant triumph, but of gradual recognition and quiet resolution. On a forlorn Texas ranch, Binh, the unwanted product of a war and a doomed relationship, finds his home and family. It makes one wonder about the millions of other stories that American immigrants might tell.
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