August 05, 2005

The Beautiful Country

Directed by Hans Petter Moland Starring Damien Nguyen, Tim Roth and Nick Nolte

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The escalating global phenomenon of illegal immigration is finally spawning some serious artistic responses as opposed to mere subplot treatments. With eye-opening and gut-wrenching depictions of brutal hardship and weathered idealism, cinematic pacesetters such as Michael Winterbottom's In This World, Ken Loach's Bread & Roses and the Dardenne brothers' La Promesse are simply unforgettable and compel viewers to rethink their positions on this complex issue. Following a man's trek in search of his Vietnamese mother and American G.I. father, Aberdeen director Hans Petter Moland's take on the theme with The Beautiful Country also brings to mind the family reunion premise of Three Seasons and the documentary Daughter from Danang.

No matter where he goes, half-breed Binh (Damien Nguyen) can't fit in. The family he dwells with in rural Vietnam doesn't allow him to eat at the dinner table and promptly kicks him out when the daughter's new husband moves into the house. Binh then heads to Saigon, locates his long-lost housekeeper mom (Chau Thi Kim Xuan) and takes a job working alongside her as a servant. A catastrophe soon sends him on the run, and he's off to the States to seek the dad he never knew. Along the way, he endures a Malaysian refugee camp, machine gun-toting smugglers, dead-end menial labour, decrepit human cargo carried by a creaking freighter and a devastating tragedy onboard.

The Piano and Lone Star cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh here creates some breathtaking images in epic Scope format. Perhaps taking cues from its producer Terrence Malick, The Beautiful Country features a few carefully studied, slightly slow-motioned montages concomitantly illustrating wide-eyed wonder and fish-out-of-water alienation. From quaint rural Vietnam and the bustling Saigon streets to the imposing Manhattan concrete jungle and the vast Texan plains, Dryburgh's lyrical vision turns the film into a languorous meditation. The immigrants' seaside arrival is such a magnificent sight that it will engrave itself in many viewers' memories.

Regrettably, Sabrina Murray's well-meaning screenplay has serious flaws, and the most discernible is its contrivance. More than a few plot elements are redolent of convenience and artificiality, and the story unfolds with a certain by-the-numbers predictability. Binh's reasons for leaving the small village and later Saigon are strained, and his no-repercussions emancipations from the refugee camp, smuggler's IOU contract and the sweatshop all ring totally false. It also doesn't help that Nguyen is thoroughly expressionless in his big-screen debut, and supporting players like Tim Roth (as the cargo-ship captain) effortlessly upstage him. The film is still memorable though, even if it never reaches the emotional devastation of its worthier predecessors.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.