Bai Ling, Nick Nolte, and Tim Roth in The Beautiful Country (2004)


(director: Hans Petter Moland; screenwriters: Sabina Murray/based on a story by Ms. Murray and Lingard Jervey; cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh; editor: Wibecke Ronseth; music: Zbigniew Preisner; cast: Nick Nolte (Steve), Tim Roth (Captain Oh), Bai Ling (Ling), Temuera Morrison (Snakehead), Damien Nguyen (Binh), Tran Dang Quoc Thinh (Tam), Chau Thi Kim Xuan (Mai), Anh Thu (Mrs. Hoa); Runtime: 125; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Edward R. Pressman/Terrence Malick/Petter J. Borgli/Tomas Backstrom; Sony Pictures Classics; 2004-USA/Norway-in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese with English subtitles)

“Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s ambitious but bleak social problem film is compelling but never fully satisfies in its clumsy dramatics.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Based on a story by Sabina Murray and Lingard Jervey, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s ambitious but bleak social problem film is compelling but never fully satisfies in its clumsy dramatics or getting out a clear message about the smuggling of illegal immigrants into America (a problem that has many sides to it, not fully explored here). Moland personalizes the film and paints a heart-wrenching tale about a timid gangly naive twenty-year-old man from an impoverished small village in Vietnam, Binh (Damien Nguyen). He has never met his parents — a Vietnamese mother and an American GI father (something that makes him an outsider in his homeland and is referred to with derision as a bui do, which means “less than dirt”). In 1990, fed up with being treated by abuse from both the villagers and the relatives who raised him, he decides to leave his menial work and locate his mother in Saigon armed only with an old photo and her former address in a hair salon. Mom (Chau Thi Kim Xuan) is an ill-treated servant for the mean-spirited upper-class Vietnamese Hoa family, who has to beg to get her son a job as a house servant. Mom tells Binh his father was from Houston Texas and married her with a priest, but one day he was gone and she never heard from him again. After an unlikely freakish household accident that leaves the mansion’s nasty matriarch (Anh Thu) dead, Binh flees for America with his mother’s blessings, her life savings of some $700 and with his youngster half-brother Tam in tow. Binh becomes a boat person, but while in Malaysia he gets placed in a hellish refugee camp. He only escapes with the aid of an embittered street smart prostitute from China, Ling (Bai Ling), and then barely survives an ocean crossing in a rusting freighter while housed in the cargo hold. The boat is captained by a philosophizing man capable of committing murder (Tim Roth) and trafficking in misery without batting an eye.

Gaining illegal entry into America, Binh’s destined for a slave labor job in NYC’s Chinatown. Alone, since Tam succumbed to a fever and Ling has gone back to prostituting herself, he yearns only to locate his dad. One day he walks out of his menial kitchen job and hitchhikes to Houston, and eventually meets his blind handyman dad (Nick Nolte) living in a trailer in rural Sweetwater Texas. The two bond and he learns that his father was blinded through an accidental explosion he touched off in a military storage site and was sent back to the States, who never contacted his wife because he thought she would be better off without him.

The title of “The Beautiful Country” refers both to Vietnam and to the United States. By the film’s end we see that the title probably holds out more hope for the United States being the beautiful country, because it’s where the Old Dream to change your luck, take up new roots, transcend the past and find material comforts still exists. Vietnam, under Communist rule, is still a country without much of a future and where the promise of a worker’s paradise has not been realized–there’s even still class division.