by Peter Byrne
A Film Review
Beautiful Country, directed by Hans Petter Moland. Norway/Vietnam, 2004, 137'. Cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh. With Damien Nguyen, Ling Bai, Tim Roth, Nick Nolte.
(Swans - May 21, 2007) Hans Petter Moland is a Norwegian filmmaker worth watching even if he regularly trips himself up in cobbled together screenplays, some of which he pens himself. His second film, Aberdeen (2001), was that rare thing an honest look at addiction and had a showing in New York City (See Stephen Holden's NY Times review, August 17, 2001). Beautiful Country (2004), something like his seventh film, was seen at the Tribeca Film Festival and briefly elsewhere in NYC in 2005. But art houses farther afield seemed scared off by the Norwegian-Vietnamese cocktail, which, rightly or wrongly, passes for box office poison. Nevertheless, Beautiful Country has now broken through into the European cineclub circuit. (It's also available on DVD.) Moland has since made another film, which bears the lethal title in English of Pedersen: High-School Teacher (2006).
Yet this is a Country not only beautiful but boasting the big, broad sentiments that win us over in vintage Hollywood fare. It has that perennial attraction of laying down a life story, a destiny, and doing so in a generous epic form. The storytelling leaves nothing out. Hollywood big names like Nick Nolte and Tim Roth even populate it, and in the bargain it takes on one of the serviceable themes of our times, the reunion of a son and a father.
Then why would distributors be so shy about colonizing such a country? The answer is simple: the story comes from the other side of the mirror, Vietnam 1990. The hero, Binh, (Damien Nguyen), is a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese whose father was an American soldier. In the language of his mother and her compatriots he's therefore "worth less than dust," and doomed to be a social outcast, a pariah. In fact he will become one of the boat people and continue his other-side-of-the-mirror existence as an illegal immigrant and indentured worker in New York.
Young Binh exists in a Dickensian world and recalls Dostoevsky's Idiot. The overgrown, awkward boy -- he has American big feet -- is innocent, kind and wiser than his silence suggests. He's a sub-proletarian Prince Mishkin. In service to a poor country family for bread and board, Binh serves as domestic scapegoat until a new husband comes to rule the roost and throws him out. Possessing only a memory of his mother and a photograph showing her with his father and himself as a baby, Binh sets out to find her. After some exquisite views of the countryside, we now watch the country boy at grips with the city.
Binh's meeting with his mother, Mai, (Thi Kim Xuan Chau) overflows with frank, mutual emotion. She has a boy child of five or so, and earns her living as a maid of all work in a cruel, rich old woman's home. This dragon agrees, not hiding her disgust for him, to take Binh on as a drudge. He soon realizes that a son of the household has made his mother into a part-time concubine and that her child has been the result. At night in their hovel a warm domestic life of sorts ensues and his mother confides that his father was indeed the American soldier on his beloved photograph, that she had married properly in church and that her husband disappeared in the course of the war.
The situation changes dramatically when Binh, cleaning and polishing, lifts a piece of the old woman's statuary above his head to admire. She enters abruptly and in an attempt to strike Binh for his temerity brings the heavy ornament fatally down on her head. Mother and son know better than to wait around to tender their apologies. It's rapidly decided that Binh and the toddler, Tam, (Dang Quoc Thinh Tran) will set out for America with Mai's savings and marriage certificate. The half-brothers get passage on a small craft and are dumped in Malaysia.
Incarcerated in a detention camp for refugees, Binh has to work hard with a pick and shovel. Ling, (Ling Bai) a young Chinese woman, also imprisoned, gives Tam maternal care when she's not out on the job as camp prostitute. Recognizing his goodness, she has a soft spot for Binh who gets no farther than mooning after her. She eventually sets up the escape of the two half-brothers, provides them with her hard earned cash, and sees them off in a kind of basket-boat to reach a ship. Shades of Dostoevskian guilt keep her from leaving too. But Binh won't go without Ling and drags her aboard.
If we thought the Malaysian camp partook of Gorki's Lower Depths, we were wrong. Life in the decrepit ship's hold is a couple of floors beneath it. The passengers have paid for their passage by years of contracted work to be done in America. This is the only reason the villain, aptly named Snakehead, who has arranged their transport is unhappy when they begin dying off. Food is short and has to be paid for in bribes. Tim Roth captains the ship and helps Binh out by making him his personal servant, and treating him to philosophical asides. Roth, always interesting, does what he can with a part that's both under and overwritten. He suggests one of Joseph Conrad's detached and enigmatic sailing men.
Life below deck is a tangle of worms. Ling does what she does best and throws in the odd song. But the child Tam dies of a fever despite her and Binh's devoted care. Once again they are dumped on a beach. But now the people-smuggling operation has North American efficiency about it. In no time, all are hard at work in China Town, taking turns in 24-hour beds that never sleep. Ling comes into her own, delivering bilingual torch songs in a neighborhood club. Binh loses some of his rough diamond quality, but not so much as to relinquish Holy Idiot status. To director and writer's credit, they leave no doubt that Ling isn't a prostitute with a heart of gold. Binh, still watching her from a distance, can't take any more and hitches a ride to Texas to find his father. He has the marriage license in one hand and that photograph in the other.
Binh makes his way road-movie-wise to a ranch where his father, Nick Nolte -- very impressive playing an old and blind man -- has found a niche as a not very handy handyman. Binh becomes his sidekick and gradually reveals his identity. It's a pity the script finishes up with a mushy ending. Nick, it turns out, didn't desert his Vietnamese wife and child. He was blinded in a wartime explosion and woke up in a Stateside hospital. He was unable to return for her, and so on. Now couldn't it have happened that just one U.S. serviceman might have abandoned a temporary wife in Vietnam? That would have jibed more with the inhumanity that Binh has met with for two long hours. It's noticeable, though, that the Norwegian-Vietnamese view of America is particularly rosy. Once out of the people smugglers' hands Binh meets nothing but kindness.
Hans Petter Moland's directorial style can sag at times, pace forgotten. We don't fault him for covering so much geography, because each place he takes us has its interest. But he oscillates disconcertingly between a documentary realism that specifies the prices and mechanics of things and a poetic narrative manner where other things just happen, credible or not, when it suits the story. The main failing of the film, however, is that the epic portrait of Binh never gels. He's too blank a character, and Damien Nguyen isn't a powerful enough actor to make us forget it. Too often the angelic idiot comes across as just plain dumb and a trial to watch. It's an interesting life story but of someone who is hardly there. All the same, let's be thankful for variety in movies and let's have more glimpses of life on the other side of the mirror.
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