If you want to dislike The Beautiful Country, you’ll be able to find some small details that will help you justify your opinion. But if you look at the big picture; at the emotional arc of our timid hero as he travels from Vietnam to the United States to find his father, you’ll find a lot to like and little room for criticism.
Coming to America
R for language, crude sexual reference
Damien Nguyen stars as Binh, a simple Vietnamese peasant. He’s the black sheep of his adoptive family. He is scarred, too tall, with ugly American features from his G.I. father (which makes him “Bui doi” — which translates to “less than dust”).
He goes to the city to find his mother Mai (Thi Kim Xuan). He tracks her down working as a servant for a rich family, trying to raise her young son Tam alone. Theirs is a fond reunion. They look over pictures of Binh’s father, Mai’s husband Steve, who simply disappeared two decades ago. She gets Binh a job at her boss’ house, and soon, with their combined savings, she sends Binh and Tam off to America to find Steve.
The movie doesn’t take any shortcuts in showing us Binh’s journey. He takes a refugee boat to Malaysia, where he is captured and housed in a refugee camp. He escapes the camp by buying passage on a rustbucket of a smuggling ship that will carry them to New York. Once there, Binh will work for his captors delivering messages by bicycle. Only well into the second hour does Binh finally head for Houston, the last known whereabouts of his father.
The emigrant’s story has been told before in movie such as El Norte, The Emigrants, and Dirty Pretty Things. The Beautiful Country takes an approach more like the first two, presenting the entire journey, rather than focusing on a single aspect of the experience. Part of me wanted to fast-forward to Texas, where, if you’ve seen the trailer, you know the movie will end. But enough drama happens at the points in between, that Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland was right to make the journey more methodical.
As important as the emigrant’s story is, the most memorable scenes owe their power to the characters, brought to life by a talented cast. Newcomer Nguyen leads the cast as Binh, whose journey from Vietnam to Houston is as much psychological as geographical. The once-timid Binh, warmed by a green army jacket, stares toward Texas from the evening-lit streets of New York City, and we can see it all on his face. People have taken advantage of him, so he has learned to be tough. He has lost his innocence but not his goodness. He is not bitter or angry; just sadder, wiser, and still determined to find his father.
Binh meets lots of interesting people along the way, and the most memorable is the captain of the rusty ship (Tim Roth). Although I found some of the ship scenes’ sets and dialogue unbelievable, Roth seems to have given his character an entire lifetime of back story. What he does is surprising, and it can’t be explained by expediency of plot or character. He seems to have his own reasons for what he does, and not those of a screenwriter in need of a quick villain or hero.
Arcs of Triumph
It is easy to pick nits from The Beautiful Country. There are props, continuity, and bits of dialogue that feel wrong, that remind you you are watching a movie. For example, why would an illegal smuggler make his “passengers” sign contracts? Does he really think he might need to back himself up in court someday? And why would Roth’s character, who wears white tennis shoes, have Binh shine his dress shoes? Why does he even have dress shoes? It’s a contradiction, convenient for the screenwriter, that was probably too expensive or too difficult to correct.
Nevertheless, harping on these minor annoyances misses the larger point of the movie, and ignores the graceful arcs of character and plot that make The Beautiful Country such an effective emotional film.