The Beautiful Country

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Beautiful Country

The Beautiful Country
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Bui doi,” Vietnamese for less than dust, is the slur given to the children of the American GI’s born during and after the Vietnam War. One of these children, Binh (Damien Nguyen), has grown up in a foster home where he is treated as a lowly servant instead of family member. He learns, after nearly 20 years in servitude, that his mother is alive and living in Saigon and packs his meager belongings to find her and, perhaps, his American father in “The Beautiful Country.”

Norwegian-born Hans Petter Moland is not a well-known quantity to me. I saw his other English-language film, Aberdeen,” a few years ago but it did not stick with me. I am very pleased to say that “The Beautiful Country” will not only stick with me, it may well be on my top ten list come year’s end.

The simple story of young outcast Binh becomes one of epic proportions when he makes the decision to leave his miserable life and try and find his mother in the big city. With only an old, worn photograph of baby Binh and his mother and GI father in front of a barbershop he treks to Saigon and, with perseverance, finds his mother, Mai (Thi Kim Xuan Chau). She works as a servant for an odious wealthy woman (Thu Anh) and her equally obnoxious son (Duc Thuan Khuong) but is able to secure a job for Binh as a houseboy. Although working conditions is strict and sometimes oppressive, Binh’s new life with Mai and his little half brother Tam (Dang Quok Thinh Tran) is a dream come true.

Binh is finally happy but this is short lived when a terrible accident occurs, killing his employer. Knowing that he will be accused for Mrs. Hao’s death, Mai gives Binh all the money she has, along with her marriage certificate to her American husband, and sends him and Tam off to find his father. This begins a journey that will span half of the world as the two brothers make the arduous boat journey that lands them in a refugee camp in Malaysia where they meet a savvy Chinese guy, Chingmy (Chapman To), and Ling (Bai Ling), a streetwalker who takes a liking to Binh and mother-starved Tam. Circumstance, again, rears its head and Binh, Tam and Ling escape from the camp.

The journey brings them aboard a tramp freighter commanded by Captain Oh (Tim Roth) and into the greedy hands of a human-trafficker, Snakeyes (Temuera Morrison), who extorts all of their money and turns the boat people into indentured slaves in exchange for passage to America. This frightening and, for many of the refugees, deadly trip brings them to New York, but not for little Tam. This begins the next episode of Binh and Ling’s new life but this too will change when Binh breaks free and heads to Houston, Texas (the address on the marriage certificate) to try to find his dad.

This synopsis doesn’t come close to the incredibly detailed story of survival, perseverance and shear guts that make up ”The Beautiful Country.”  Helmer Moland creates a well-crafted and well-told story, by Sabina Murray and Lingard Jervey, which belies its simple tale of a young outcast who wants to find his father. Damien Nguyen plays Binh as a quiet and observant young man who has suffered a lifetime of abuse for his accident of birth. There is always the streak of hopefulness apparent in Binh even as he faces one arduous event after another in his quest to find his father.

The Beautiful Country” is one of those fortunate films where the veteran supporting cast help make the movie even better. Ling Bai, as the hooker with a heart, gives a strong performance as she befriends the bui doi and becomes a surrogate mother to little Tam. Tim Roth, too, does a fine job giving complexity to his Captain Oh. Other small roles are also well played across the board. Nick Nolte excels as the subject of Binh’s long and dangerous journey and gives an award worthy performance.

The production of “The Beautiful Country” is as complex as the story it depicts with no fewer than six completely different settings from the small village where Binh grew up to Saigon to the Malaysian refugee camp, the rusting death ship that brings him to America, New York City and America’s heartland. All in all, it is a very impressive work by its cast and crew with Moland handling the helm skillful authority.

Sometimes I think that the feeling of movie-rush is just a figment of my imagination. Then, you see a film like “The Beautiful Country” and get that feeling again. I give it an A.

The peace of Hoa Nam, a small Vietnamese village, is broken by more than Lene Lovich's "Lucky Number" screaming from a passing motorbike after Pham (Xuan Phuc Dins) asks for Binh's (newcomer Damien Nguyen) stepmother's hand in marriage.  Binh is Bui Doi ('less than Dust'), regarded as ugly and outcast as the adult child of an American GI.  He seeks out his natural mother Mai (Thi Kim Xuan Chau) in Saigon and a new dawn seems to break, but a tragic accident means Binh must go on the run with nothing but Mai's marriage certificate, meager savings and young son Tam (Dang Quoc Thinh Tran), headed towards his unknown father in "The Beautiful Country."

Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland is perhaps best know for "Aberdeen," another film about a child travelling from the mother to reconnect with the father.  But whereas that film was an intimate character drama confined to the Northern limits of Europe, this one is epic in scope, a film that recalls many with its episodes of dangerous boat travel, brutal refugee camps, indentured slavery and travel from the big cities of American to its remotest, rural reaches.

Binh's reunion with Mai is warm and intense, his and her history not what he expected (she actually married his American father, who simply disappeared one day).  But the reality of Saigon is another thing entirely.  Mai's employer, Mrs. Hoa (Thu Anh), is a wealthy tyrant whose son's (Duc Thuan Khuong) unwanted advances resulted in young Tam. Mrs. Hoa's own nasty nature ironically causes her death, but Binh is sure to be blamed and must escape.  With Houston as the goal, Mai sacrifices Tam to a better life in the U.S. with Binh.  After a horrific boat journey, Binh and Tam are plunked into a hellish Malaysian refugee camp.  Chingmy (Man-chat To, "Infernal Affairs") tells Binh that only through sexual favors, like those dished out by Ling (Bai Ling, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"), can money be made to get out.  But Ling takes a liking to little Tam, then is oddly moved by the quiet Binh, so she arranges for passage to America - a journey Binh refuses to take without her.  Once aboard the rusty trawler, Binh learns they need to sign up for indentured servitude or be tossed overboard by Snakehead (Temuera Morrison, "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith").  Captain Oh (Tim Roth, "The Musketeer," "Dark Water") advises Binh to sign.  Another horrific journey draws Binh and Ling closer, but little Tam is lost to fever.  On the shores of New York, they're greeted by garbage.  Binh works as a messenger and a busboy in Chinatown (where he throws away enough food from three plates to feed all the people who were lost in passage) and suffers watching Ling pick up men in a sleazy karaoke bar. Ling observes that if Binh keeps sending all his wages to Mai, he'll never make it to Houston.  Then, as if his hardships hadn't been peppered with enough irony, Binh discovers that as the Vietnamese son of an American GI he was entitled to free transport and repatriation.  After a heart breaking parting from Ling, Binh hitchhikes his way to Houston where he eventually finds Steve (Nick Nolte, "Hulk," "Hotel Rwanda"), his father, in a most unexpected reunion.

Screenwriter Sabina Murray maintains a beautiful symmetry throughout both the winding story and its smaller details.  Binh's first job helping Mai at the Hoa house is to paint an iron gate which extends to Texas where Steve is a ranch hand with a peeling fence to tend to.  When Binh discovers Mai, it is through Tam, the product of another parental union, just as it is Steve's American ex-wife (Libby Villari, "Boys Don't Cry," "Serving Sara") who eventually points him towards his father (in a beautiful touch, the filmmakers trick us by housing the ex-wife in a vision of the American dream).  Even the film's title flips, as Mai describes the U.S., so does Steve describe Binh's home country.  The stories' many ironies are also told visually - after a long day at work, Mai picks up Tam from the elderly, one-legged woman who minds him and carries him upstairs. Moments later, a young man does the same for the old babysitter.  Tam's loss is foreshadowed on the first boat trip, a baby protected by its grandfather replaced in the next shot by its wailing mother.  When conditions get dire on Captain Oh's ship and Tam pulls a wriggling maggot from his few tablespoons of rice, Ling advises him 'That's what Mickey Mouse eats,' perhaps foreshadowing her own future.

Bai Ling is terrific as the jaded woman who is yet still able to be affected by a happy little boy and his steady, quiet caretaker. Damien Nguyen creates a sympathetic hero without heroics, a humble man who keeps seeking a place in a life that continually beats him down.  His scenes with Nolte are ones of few words but tremendous emotion, an unspoken recognition that is extremely moving in its simplicity.   Moland has done great work with his cast (the villains on either end are unfeeling capitalists, the ones in the middle, Roth in particular, grayer) and his great sprawling film.

"The Beautiful Country" is the type of film that will make you wonder about the story behind the face of every immigrant in the street.  It is a wrenching, ultimately touching human drama.

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