Free At Last 

A harrowing journey leads to America, and then to someplace better.

The questing hero of Hans Petter Moland's The Beautiful Country is a slender, big-eyed young man named Binh (California-educated Damien Nguyen), who has little going for him but his obsession. Ostracized in his homeland because he's the offspring of a Vietnamese mother and an American GI father -- bui doi, he's called, "less than dust" -- he has grown up as a foster child in a remote farming village, largely enslaved and barely tolerated because of his mixed blood and telltale Western features. But Binh dreams. Emboldened by nothing more than an old, creased snapshot, the outcast means to reconcile with his origins and reinvent his life -- whatever that entails. He has no idea what miseries await on the oceans and the dangerous streets before him.

Generous in spirit and fearlessly observant, The Beautiful Country deserves a place of honor among the great movies portraying emigrant tenacity -- everything from The New Land to Hester Street to the first two Godfather films -- thanks, at least in part, to the young director's own life story. A Norwegian who was a sixteen-year-old exchange student in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, Moland graduated from Boston's Emerson College and worked in New York before his return to Oslo. He has a convincing grip on the emotions that accompany displacement and the courage it takes to cope with mystery and change. Violently uprooted but ever hopeful, Binh sets out on his harsh odyssey with a pluck and openness to experience that should give second thoughts to our own sour nativists and self-appointed civilian border guards. We never see the Statue of Liberty in this film, but we see the meaning of liberty itself.

Sliding down from the back of a water buffalo, Binh makes his way, in 1990, to what used to be Saigon and now is Ho Chi Minh City -- a teeming metropolis that fills him with bafflement. Almost by a miracle, he manages to find his mother (Chau Thi Kim Xuan), who works as a maid in the household of an imperious Vietnamese heiress. He also unearths a little brother, Tam (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh). But there is to be no contentment in Saigon. Forced by a fatal accident to leave the city, Binh and little Tam board an open boat for the South China Sea and get as far as Malaysia before they're imprisoned in a filthy refugee camp. There, amid people of many nationalities, Binh learns bits of English and becomes friends with a resourceful Chinese girl, Ling (Bai Ling), who slips from the camp at night to work as a streetwalker.

Admirers of the great B. Traven novel The Death Ship will recognize Beautiful Country's gruesome central chapter -- a storm-tossed voyage with hundreds of other emigrants on a decrepit tramp freighter, complete with short rations, fatal diseases, bribery, an on-board slave trader, and an opportunistic captain (Tim Roth). Locked in the hold, the beleaguered, half-starved travelers occupy themselves with touching trivia games, trying to name the TV shows and pro football teams and pop stars of the nation where they're bound. The United States. But it would be a mistake for American viewers to assume that the "beautiful country" of the title is none but our own. Director Moland's strengths include the vision of a world traveler and a gift for metaphor: In the end, the "beautiful country" is not so much a physical place like America or Vietnam, but the dream of contentment, belonging, and peace. To his credit, the filmmaker doesn't put too fine a point on it. Binh's journey may be inward, the progress of a soul, but it takes the apparent form of a harrowing adventure story.

Eventually, he reaches New York -- no bargain destination for boat people. Imprisoned once more (this time, in the kitchen of a Chinatown restaurant), Binh gets a taste of America at its worst, but he also glimpses freedom's unexpected possibilities. He has come to love Ling, his Chinese counterpart in survival, but he sees that her crummy job in a squalid karaoke bar may be her deliverance. An American businessman (who at least has the good sense to be ashamed) wants to marry her. Meanwhile, Binh's escape to the American West is full of ambiguous questions, but also a frontiersman's sense of hope. His brief encounter with a country club matron in Houston may be the movie's most telling scene, but when he finally comes to ground with a blind man (gritty, weary Nick Nolte) in a house trailer on the windswept Texas prairie, he understands what he has been searching for all along. Without much talk and no bogus sentiment, the boy from Vietnam and the long-lost American begin to enter the magical realm of the title. Many movies seek to thrum our heartstrings, and most do it through cheap emotional tricks and outright manipulation. But because The Beautiful Country earns every deep feeling it engenders in us, it deserves the highest compliment: It's completely authentic.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Movie Review

  • Black Cinema

    Fifteen Black-themed films you should've already seen.
    • Jun 10, 2020
  • A Star is Bored

    Coming soon to a screen near you: your own Covid-19-themed horror feature
    • May 27, 2020
  • Crossing the Streams

    From the new releases everyone's talking about to the cult classics they should be, here are five things to stream and skip this week.
    • Apr 22, 2020
  • More »

Author Archives

  • Flight of Fancy

    Glossy combat epic offers a sanitized version of World War I.
    • Sep 20, 2006
  • The Longest Yawn

    Heavily padded football movie hits all the familiar notes.
    • Sep 13, 2006
  • More»

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation