Here’s an international production for you: a Norwegian director, working for an American producer, makes a film about a Vietnamese man who emigrates to America, being held first in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Much of the film also takes place at sea in a rusty transport ship.
The film is The Beautiful Country, produced by Terrence Malick, and directed by Hans Petter Moland (Aberdeen, Zero Kelvin). Its star power comes from Nick Nolte and Tim Roth in supporting roles, but the protagonist is played by Damien Nguyen (pronounced “win”).
Nguyen, a young actor living in L.A., makes his feature debut in this film. Nguyen is strikingly different from his on-screen persona. Scarred and wounded, his character spends the first half of the film practically in a fetal position. It’s a wonder he has the courage to set off in search of his father. By the end the character has just begun to open up. In person, the actor is bright, energetic, positive, confident, charismatic; any director would be lucky to have him in the cast.
Moland is a veteran of the film business, directing movies and commercials in Norway. He also exudes confidence, but his is more stoic, deliberate, and decisive. Moland and Nguyen toured the country together earlier this summer to talk about their movie.
Coming to America
Hans Petter Moland
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“Norwegians don’t leave Norway the same way [Vietnamese people] leave Vietnam,” says Moland. “I came here as an exchange student.” His coming-to-America experience involved a trip to Detroit where he saw a river on fire and experienced his first 105-degree weather. “That’s culture shock,” jokes Nguyen.
Nguyen came to America, but not as an exchange student. His family came from Viet Nam, not unlike the characters in the film. “I was three, almost 4 years old; too young to really remember it.”
His parents were aware of the hardships involved in emigrating, but they made it. “Unfortunately, it was too painful for them to talk about; so they never did. It wasn’t until I got involved in this movie that they were ready to volunteer this information.”
It’s tempting to look for eerie parallels between the character’s story and the actor’s story. But Nguyen says that’s probably a stretch, particularly since he was so young when he made the trip. “If anything, I had flashes and pictures in my head of the passage but I don’t know if they were real. One thing I can think of is walking inside this boat and having this smell of gasoline or crude oil that was just so nauseating. Walking around, people were making little makeshift campfires to cook with. People laying around nauseated and sick and in damp spirits — I don’t know if these are actual events or just something my mind fabricated to fill in the holes.”
Shooting at Sea
Some of the most harrowing and memorable scenes in The Beautiful Country take place on the ship, which looks like it’s made of pure rust. “It was,” say Nguyen and Moland in unison. “In fact, it looked exactly the way it looks [on film],” says Moland. “It’s in service, transporting cement and rice.”
Making a movie set of a working ship sounds problematical, but Moland says the logistics weren’t the problem. “Power was not the difficult part — it’s shooting at sea, especially shooting boat to boat. There were sixty people. After the second day, only twenty of us were working. The rest were sick.”
Nguyen adds, “one seasickness triggered off three or four more.” Enough said.
Nguyen’s character Binh comes to America from Viet Nam, but he comes by himself, as a man, even though he’s still very young. The journey forces him to grow up fast, which could easily spoil the innocence of an average traveler.
Of the character, Moland says “He’s one of the finest human beings, but you wouldn’t pick him out of a crowd. He ultimately succeeds in keeping his goodness; he is not corrupted or hardened. It is a celebration of what human beings are capable of and what is grand about us. So it’s not about an immigrant, but about humanity.”
Much some of Binh’s presence comes from Nguyen, although some of his nobility is attributable to the script and the direction. “Actors don’t work in a vacuum, and directors don’t either. There is an overall game plan,” says Moland.
Nevertheless, Moland agrees that Nguyen is the perfect casting choice for Binh. There were the obvious physical criteria in casting the part — Binh had to look like he could have had an American father. But, as Moland says, “it became more and more obvious to me that the inner qualities needed to transcend this humongous undertaking — this requires some personal qualities that are far less physically manifested. What Damien has, and what he showed when I met him, is that he has a quiet strength, dignity and groundedness as a human being, and a resilience that’s not showy. It’s a quiet confidence.”
The Beautiful Country
Nguyen spoke about some of his favorite memories from shooting the film. He praised the material and his fellow actors; he mentioned the excitement of working with the likes of Nick Nolte. But, he adds, “some of the times the [best] experience was not while shooting but walking from the set to the production office in entire darkness and all you had was natural light.” Nguyen lowers his voice, speaking reverently “you could just see the silhouette of the background and just being caught up in the spirit of the country. Those quiet moments were just as great as the professional opportunities, working with great actors.”
It was Nguyen’s first time in Viet Nam since he was three. “My parents always wanted me to go back, and they had made plans, but nothing solidified. So when I told them ‘I’m going to Viet Nam for a couple months,’ they were ecstatic. I was able to look up some relatives while I was there. I met my aunt and uncle and my cousin, who had made a trip to see me.”
Going “back” to a place you don’t remember can be a daunting experience. “It’s like part of you inside says you’re supposed to just somehow connect with the country and the people automatically, but it was not the case. It was culture shock. I felt so out of place at first. I definitely sought refuge at the hotel. Within a few weeks...”
Moland fills in, “you acclimatized.”
“Yeah ‘cause you just threw me in,” Nguyen laughs.
Moland, serious again, says “the one thing about Viet Nam that doesn’t go away — it’s its own. It leaves a mark for the rest of your life.”
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies