The Beautiful Country
2005, R, 125 min. Directed by Hans Petter Moland. Starring Damien Nguyen, Bai Ling, Nick Nolte, Tim Roth, Temuera Morrison, Arthur J. Nascarella.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 5, 2005
Despite Stuart Dryburgh's stunningly beautiful cinematography that makes every country in which this movie is set look beautiful, the film's title is meant to be more than a little ironic. The Beautiful Country recounts the grueling journey taken by the Vietnamese teen Binh (Nguyen) to first find his mother in Ho Chi Minh City, and then his father in Texas. Because of his mixed parentage (his father was an American GI during the war), Binh is shunned everywhere in Vietnamese society, which categorizes these children as "bui doi" less than dust. Set in 1990, Binh lives in the countryside with relatives, with whom he is not even allowed to eat, when he learns that his mother is still alive and living in the city. Thus begins a Dickensian odyssey in which Binh encounters all sorts of horrors and depths of human cruelty, to which he always responds with his good-natured attitude and sincerity. The Beautiful Country is ultimately undone by the earnest melodrama that follows Binh from Ho Chi Minh City to internment in a refugee camp in Malaysia to a desperate sea voyage that takes him to New York's Chinatown and eventually Texas. Along the way he meets his young half-brother and a prostitute from China with a heart of gold (Ling). The journey exposes Binh to new horrors at every turn and the unusually tall, mixed-parentage Binh is an outcast at almost every turn. Although Binh speaks some broken English, The Beautiful Country is often wordless, conveying much of its saga though accumulated detail. However, Nguyen is not nearly a good enough actor to finesse such subtleties. Nolte, as the father, only appears in the last 20 or so minutes of the film, and Roth and Morrison are wasted in roles that add to neither the story's dimension nor drama. The influence of one of the film's producers, Terrence Malick, can be seen in the film's final Texas chapter, which provides the only unpredictable moments of the story and captures countryside that looks like it could have been outtakes from Days of Heaven. Norwegian director Moland shows a steady though somewhat plodding hand, but it must be said that Sabina Murray's doleful script provides him little opportunity to create dramatic highs and lows. The Beautiful Country provides a panorama without insight.