||A young Vietnamese takes a long, difficult journey to find his American father in Hans Petter Moland’s epic but intimate film, based on an idea by Terrence Malick, the legendary (or perhaps more properly cult) writer-director who also served as one of the picture’s producers. It’s impossible to deny the sincerity and sporadic impact of “A Beautiful Country” (a title which, as a bit of dialogue in the last reel tells us, has a double meaning, depending on one’s perspective). But it must also be admitted that the film is not only leisurely and episodic but more soft-hearted than it needed to be, smoothing out the sharp edges of its protagonist’s experience and sometimes descending into something dangerously near to bathos. That it manages to overcome the structural weaknesses is a tribute to the integrity with which the filmmakers and the cast approach the material.
Damien Nguyen plays, with rather unvarying moroseness and deliberation, Binh, who’s treated as a virtual slave by his rural Vietnamese family because of his mixed-blood status. When his half-sister prepares to marry a particularly bigoted neighbor, Binh chooses to go to Saigon to find his mother Mai (Chau Thi Kim Xuan). He does--with surprising ease, considering he has only an aged photo to go by: she’s the servant of the rich Hoa family, whose matriarch abuses her and whose son paws her at every turn, and she has a younger son named Tam (Tran Dang Quoc Thinh). His mother persuades Mrs. Hoa to take on Binh in the household as well, but an accident caused by the old woman’s dislike forces Binh to flee the city, taking Tam with him in an attempt to leave Vietnam for America. The second part of what amounts to a narrative triptych involves their journey, first to a harsh Malaysian refugee camp, and then, after they escape with help from Ling (Bai Ling), a “loose” Chinese women they encounter there (and who joins them), on a ship captained by the calmly ruthless Captain Oh (Tim Roth) smuggling illegals to America. The sea voyage quickly turns harrowing, and one of the trio doesn’t survive it. But Binh eventually finds his way to New York, and after an unhappy stint as an indentured servant, he takes off to look for his father in Houston. Once again the obstacles to his search, after the passage of two decades, prove easily overcome, and in a bittersweet conclusion he haltingly bonds with the older man (Nick Nolte).
“A Beautiful Country” certainly tells a poignant story, and some elements of it are strong and affecting. The depiction of the harsh treatment accorded to children fathered by American soldiers in Vietnam is quietly powerful, and the reunion of mother and son is also effective, especially since Xuan’s performance is so wrenchingly honest. Roth’s turn as the carelessly callous captain is outstanding. The relationship between Binh and Tam has considerable sweetness, and the gently-played, unforced scenes between father and son at the close are notable for their restraint (and Nolte’s elegant underplaying). (Indeed, throughout one has to admire Moland’s habit of holding back when overstatement would have been an easy choice, and Stuart Dryburgh’s unfussy camerawork.) But for every strength there’s a drawback. Nguyen’s passivity becomes somewhat monotonous, emphasizing the “Camille”-like nature of his suffering; the rare instances in which he strikes out in anger are almost a refreshing change. The stridency with which the Hoa family is portrayed is a miscalculation. But the biggest problem is the character of Ling, who’s literally a prostitute with a heart of gold. It’s the film’s most conspicuous false note.
The balance sheet’s a close one, but by the closest of margins “A Beautiful Country” winds up on the positive side of the ledger. It’s a good film that might have been a great one.