Berlin International Film Festival
BERLIN -- "Beautiful Country" is the latest rendition of the American immigrant story -- at least one seems to arrive with each film festival -- and this certainly is one of the more compelling examples of such tales. The film achieves its power through a careful gathering of crucial details, in wordless glances, cruelties of nature and of man and the relentless determination to gain the promised land, even if that land is incapable of living up to those promises.
Producers Edward R. Pressman and Terrence Malick (who conceived the story) took a gamble in hiring a Norwegian, Hans Petter Moland, to direct the saga of a young Vietnamese man who embarks on an arduous journey from his homeland to Texas in search of his American father. Then again, who better to make such an immigrant story than an outsider to both cultures?
With careful handling, Sony Pictures Classics could turn "Beautiful Country" into an art house hit after building momentum on the festival circuit. Name actors such as Nick Nolte -- in a small role as the father -- Bai Ling and Tim Roth can only help.
Born to a Vietnamese mother and an American GI dad, Binh (an accomplished debut by Damien Nguyen) wears the face of the country's enemy. Such half-castes are known by a pejorative expression meaning "less than dust." Simple yet poignant scenes at the outset establish his ostracized status. Even aboard a rusty tanker ferrying human cargo to the New World, the captain (Roth) tells him he will be an outcast wherever he goes.
As Vietnam aggressively celebrates the Vietcong victory, Binh heads for Ho Chi Minh City to locate his mother (Chau Thi Kim Xuan). All he has to go by is an old photo showing a happy couple holding a baby in front of a corner building. He locates that building and soon his mom. He meets a very young half-brother (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh) and then gets a job alongside his mother in the household of a rich though nasty old woman.
(A weakness in the story is that we never learn why Binh's mother more or less abandoned him or why she now greets him with such joy.)
When a household tragedy is blamed on Binh, his mother gives him enough money for him and his brother to flee the country in an open boat. In a Malaysian refugee camp, he meets Ling Bai Ling), a Chinese prostitute with whom he develops a gentle, supportive friendship. During a riot, the three escape and essentially barter their souls for passage to New York on a tanker.
Many die en route, including Binh's Little Brother. After suffering a period of virtual slavery in New York's Chinatown, he parts company with Ling to hitchhike his way to Texas in search of his dad.
Pretty familiar stuff all along the way. Yet the details are surprisingly fresh, and the characters are vividly drawn. The script by Sabina Murray and Larry Gross eschews melodrama whenever possible for a realistic portrait of the hardships of the illegal immigrant experience. People ruthlessly focus on their own self interest, but the film avoids picking out heroes or villains. This is just the way people behave on the immigrant trail.
Moland gets wonderful performances from his cast. Nguyen must be the narrative's driving force and yet perform an often-reactive role, a seeming contradiction he smoothly handles. Nolte and Roth show restraint in playing highly flawed individuals. Ling lets no sentimentality encroach on the prostitute, who is lively on the outside and dead within.
Cinematographer Stuart Dreyburgh catches the grit and beauty of the lands and seas Binh transverses. Zbigniew Preisner's music never intrudes, rather gently accompanying the perilous journey with an evocative score that pulls in themes from cultures encountered.
Sony Pictures Classics
Dinamo Story AS/Sunflower Prods.
Credits: Director: Hans Petter Moland
Writers: Sabina Murray, Larry Gross
Story: Terrence Malick
Producers: Edward R. Pressman, Terrence Malick, Petter J. Borgli, Tomas Backstrom
Director of photography: Stuart Dreyburgh
Production designer: Kalli Juliusson
Music: Zbigniew Preisner
Costume designer: Anne Petersen
Editor: Wibecke Ronseth. Cast: Binh: Damien Nguyen
Ling: Bai Ling
Tam: Tran Dang Quoc Thinh
Captain Oh: Tim Roth
Snakehead: Temuera Derek Morrison
Steve: Nick Nolte
Running time -- 137 minutes
No MPAA rating