The knockout punch is a long time coming, but it’s worth the wait in “The Beautiful Country,” tale of a young Vietnamese-American’s odyssey to find his former-G.I. father stateside. Sidestepping most of the Asian and search-for-roots cliches inherent in such material, and buoyed by a low-key perf from Tim Roth en route and a splendid showing by Nick Nolte in the powerful final reels, film reps a qualified success by Norwegian helmer Hans Petter Moland in his second offshore “road” movie after “Aberdeen” (2000). Cutting by at least 20 minutes could equip this for warm specialist distribution in upmarket locations.
In Hoa Nam, Vietnam, 1990, 20-year-old mixed-race Binh (Damien Nguyen) lives with foster parents in a village. Treated like a servant, Binh spends his days doing agricultural chores, catching fish with his bare hands and dreaming of finding the parents he never knew. The only clues he has are a photo of himself as a baby, with his mom and dad in front of a Saigon hairdresser’s, and the description that his father “had very big feet.”
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Early scenes are almost impressionistic, sketching village life in a restrained, unexotic way. Told that his mother, Mai (Chau Thi Kim Xuan), is still alive, Binh sets off to track her down in Ho Chi Minh City (present-day Saigon), where she’s now employed as a servant in an upper-class home.
The restraint that is to pay major dividends in the final stages is evident early on, as Mai greets her long-lost son with simple emotion, feeling him with her hands as if to register his actual presence. Weak from years of hard work, and with a baby son, Tam (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh), Mai manages to convince the stern materfamilias, Mrs. Hoa (Anh Thu), to take on Binh as a handyman. But when Hoa accidentally dies in a tussle with Binh over a jade artifact, Mai and her two sons go on the run.
Knowing she’s dying, Mai gives Binh all her savings and tells him to take himself and Tam to the U.S. She also gives him her wedding certificate, which has the address of his father in Houston, Texas. She cautions Binh to “ask for nothing” if he succeeds in his quest.
Joining a group of boat people, Binh is eventually put ashore in Malaysia, where he’s incarcerated in a refugee camp with a motley group of other Asian illegals, including a Cantonese huckster, Chingmy (Hong Kong comic thesp Chapman To), and a hard-nosed young woman from northern China, Ling (Bai Ling). A bond forms between Binh and Ling that leads them to escape during a camp riot; they board a rusty tanker, captained by the morose, ruthless Oh (Tim Roth), that’s transporting illegals to the U.S.
Almost an hour in, the movie has vacillated between an intriguingly offbeat take on its protag’s spiritual journey — one remarkable sequence, recalling co-producer Terrence Malick’s own filmmaking bent, shows just Binh and Tam silently enjoying landfall on a Malaysian beach — to more cliched fare like Mai being abused by Mrs. Hoa’s evil son (Khuong Duc Thuan) or Ling as the ambitious camp tart.
One prime candidate for cutting is a sequence where Ling entertains the increasingly love-struck Binh with a private perf of a Mandarin song.
Helmer Moland shows his Scandi roots in the long second act set aboard Oh’s rust-bucket, as it chugs along through cold seas and colder light. Pic’s propensity for scenes set either at night or in darkly lit interiors reaches its apogee here, as the human cargo in the ship’s hold is subjected to bullying, near-starvation and even death. Oh takes a liking to Binh, and even offers him a permanent job on his boat (which Binh turns down).
At the 90-minute mark, Binh finally makes it to the U.S. as an illegal immigrant. But it’s only here that his personal story really begins, with several surprises en route to finding his dad (Nolte), and a finale that’s as emotionally wrenching as it is unexpected and restrained.
Refreshingly, Moland and d.p. Stewart Dryburgh, while taking advantage of the widescreen ratio, hardly exoticize either East or West, lensing Ho Chi Minh City and New York in exactly the same way. Similarly, Hoa Nam (with its characteristic islands) and Texas (with its big open skies and plains) are contrasted, but not over-beautified. Point seems to be that for Binh, a handyman with no special skills, these environs are all much the same — places to earn a living and survive as he seeks personal closure.
Film’s major weakness, exposed by length, is the main protag, who, in Nguyen’s downcast, dog-like perf, doesn’t involve the viewer enough in much of the pre-Stateside material. Early going is enhanced by Chau Thi’s quietly moving playing as Binh’s mom; and the middle section by Roth’s deceptively edgy portrait of the tanker captain, a lonely mariner who, when he berates Binh for falling for the lure of America (“I offer you a new life; you choose an old dream”), can’t name an alternative.
Standout performance, however, is by Nolte who, in the final 20 minutes, draws on a deep reservoir of playing broken romantic heroes to portray Binh’s father. The subtle, resonant scenes between the two men are worth the price of admission.
Technically, the production is pro at all levels, though some of the pidgin English by Asians is indistinct.
Pic’s title, from an unexplained remark by Ling, refers to the Chinese name for America: This literally means “beautiful country” (mei guo). In a neat irony, for Nolte’s character (as for Roth’s) “the beautiful country” is actually someplace else.