A Norwegian-American co-production, The Beautiful Country tells the tale of Binh, a young Vietnamese man in search of his Vietnamese mother and American G.I. father. The story begins in 1990 Vietnam, where Binh (played by newcomer Damien Nguyen) finds his mother toiling in Saigon. Soon, he determines to reach America with his toddling half-brother, but the journey is trying. Waylaid in a Malaysian labor camp, Binh befriends Ling, a Chinese prostitute played by Bai Ling. The ocean voyages that follow provide the film's most grueling and convincing moments.
Like many a Vietnamese film, The Beautiful Country is sad, lyrical, and infused with an indomitable spirit in spite of hardship. Unfortunately, this humor-drained picaresque is propelled by hasty, unlikely contrivances and romantic melodrama. The cast is quite good, especially open-mouthed Nguyen, who regulates Binh's personal growth from passive man-child to active man; Tim Roth and Nick Nolte both turn up in enigmatic roles, and each demonstrates a welcome capacity for subtlety despite rushed character development.
When director Hans Petter Moland has an idea, he lays it on thick: an insistent foot motif, for example, represents the never-ending path of life. Not-so-subtle social critiquing kicks into its highest gear in the New York City scenes, as Binh is paid to scrape food into garbage (ah, the land of plenty!) and refugees in a mafia-run camp watch the "Greed is good" scene from Wall Street play on a tiny TV.
Much of the imagery (including the score by Zbigniew Preisner) is more evocative than the often sketchy plot details, and Moland can boast the imprimatur of co-producer Terrence Malick. If Moland is a bit more interested in romantic melodrama than anthropology, the plight of the refugee still makes the intended emotional impact. One more hammered-home point plays best in the film's most painterly moments: both Vietnam and America qualify as "beautiful country."
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