Beautiful Country, directed by the Norwegian commercials director Hans Petter Molland, marks the latest cinematic attempt to capture the current public interest in immigrant / emigrant issues. It’s beautifully shot and competently acted but feels overly long and badly paced.
The film tells the story of a young Vietnamese man, Binh, who goes off in search of his American father. He has been brought up by a foster mother but is ostracised by a community resentful of his mixed heritage. At this stage you imagine that the beautiful country of the title could be Vietnam, as Molland gives us delightful scenes of flying paper lanterns during the Vietcong victory anniversary celebrations. But we soon realise that life for someone with the reduced status Binh possesses is far from easy. He manages to find his blood mother, who is employed by a rich but unkind Vietnamese family, and manages to find a job working for the same household. An unfortunate domestic accident leads to the death of their female employer, and Binh is held responsible and has to flee with his juvenile half-brother. With money from his mother he embarks on a terrifying boat journey to Malaysia where he is incarcerated in a refugee camp. Here he meets Ling, a worldly Chinese woman with a heart of gold who sells her body because it’s the only way to survive. Both Binh and his little brother Tam grow to love her. All three of them then manage to buy their way onto a tanker heading for New York and once more there is a harrowing sea journey under the watchful eye of Tim Roth’s creepy ship’s captain.
The epic nature of this saga manages to produce a ponderous and rather worthy film, packed full of cliché-laden dialogue and contrived plot development. I would not wish to suggest that these things have never happened or are unrealistic, but the messages are laid on with a shovel: life can be very tough in Vietnam. The gap between rich and poor leads to appalling exploitation. Refugees often go through horrendous experiences in camps or on boats where again they are cruelly exploited. None of this is really helped by the main actors being given some very cheesy pidgin-English dialogue, although strangely Binh’s English comes on leaps and bounds in the Malaysian refugee camp, though he doesn’t appear to be given any lessons.
They arrive in America accompanied by the revolting New Jersey smokestack skyline. Can this be the beautiful country they have heard about? The ironies come thick and fast. Whereas on the tanker they had had to fight and beg for food, now they’re working in restaurants and throwing it away from the plates of wasteful New York consumers. Binh is told that any Vietnamese with a GI father can fly for free to the United States, so his gruelling journey wasn’t even necessary. He separates from Ling who, after meeting a mature American guy in a bar whilst working as a karaoke singer, decides to go for the rich life that he can offer her.
Binh manages to track down his father’s house in Texas. Predictably enough it’s huge, but he discovers that his father separated from his wife many years previously and went off to work on a ranch somewhere. Binh then succeeds in finding the ranch, miles out in the middle of nowhere. He finally gets to meet his father, Steve (Nick Nolte), a grizzled and practically blind (and therefore fairly useless) farmhand who lives in a trailer. These scenes are by far the best in the film. Indeed they could almost have come from a different film: in place of contrivance and heavy-handed messages, there is real subtlety and the languid pace seems perfect. Molland never has Binh call Steve "father". Their relationship is not openly acknowledged. What we get are scenes of real tenderness as Binh asks Steve about his Vietnam experiences and the woman we know to be Binh’s mother. You have the feeling that Steve realises who Binh might be, but nobody says anything. The viewer is left with the sight of the son caring for his blind father. Nolte is superb in these sequences – his life all clearly behind him. These scenes would almost make a perfect short.
It’s a very moving end to an otherwise disappointing film. The screenplay was based on an idea by Terrence Malick but, apart from the final section, it lacks all the obscure brilliance and craft of The Thin Red Line. As for the "beautiful country" of the title – well, it’s left open to interpretation, but America seems the most likely solution. At least there you have the freedom to find whatever it is you’re looking for – even if you have to go to hell and back to get there.