Published Aug 01, 2005Movies like The Beautiful Country play at such high stakes that it's doubly painful when they finally crap out. You'd think that you'd be at least moderately involved by the Vietnamese story of Binh (newcomer Damien Nguyen), one of the bui doi ("less than dust") with American soldier fathers who are subsequently shunned by the rest of the community.
Cruel treatment by his peers, a tragic encounter with his birth mother, a nightmarish journey to America on a human-cargo boat - sounds like a recipe for scorching heartbreak and reproach to those who capitalise on human misery. But the film doesn't see Binh as a person - he's a social issue, a topic of discussion, anything but a living, breathing human being with personal quirks beyond his liberal crusade status. And so it listlessly ticks off every broad indignity without a sense of the quality of life it wants to preserve.
Binh is a man-child and a screen on which to project the vaguest of facts, an approach that trivialises and ultimately blunts the force of the misery it's trying to express. One could argue that Hans Petter Moland's direction is gorgeous, but it's gorgeous in all the wrong ways, giving us a picture-postcard Vietnam and an inexcusably hands-off boat ride that rejects visceral involvement for aestheticised distance. Of course, it helps to not involve writer Sabina Murray, who grants skipper Tim Roth lines like, "I offer you a new beginning and you choose an old dream!"
The final appearance by Nick Nolte is suitably impressive, but by then it's far too late to redeem the best of intentions and their smug, ham-fisted follow-through. (Mongrel Media)