Go Ahead, Sing Along—You Know The Words Already
One of the nifty by-products of the 1990s’ international independent movie boom are projects featuring the kind of multinational funding, casts, and crews not seen since the 1970s. Then, movies such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 Despair—a German director helming an English-language West German/French production featuring a British star (Dirk Bogarde) in an adaptation of a novel from a Russian émigré (Vladimir Nabokov’s Otchayanie) with a script written by a British scenarist (Tom Stoppard)—were fairly common.
The difference between now and then is a matter of scale, however: Where names such as Bogarde, Stoppard, and Fassbinder might have mattered only to a Pauline Kael-reading cineaste, the bleed of movie business-speak from the trades to USA Today has thankfully erased much of the divide between the art house and multiplex for audiences, and actors, directors, etc., have followed suit. Marquee names hop back and forth between indie and blockbuster with relative ease, but sometimes they bring along their cinematic baggage.
Take the Norwegian-American production The Beautiful Country, for instance. Here is a heart-wrenchingly earnest movie about the nationless Binh (newcomer Damien Nguyen), the child of a Vietnamese mother and an American G.I. It’s directed by Norwegian Hans Petter Moland, the steely presence behind 1995’s Zero Kelvin; co-stars a handful of instantly recognizable minor stars; is scored with subtle grace by Krzysztof Kieslowski veteran Zbigniew Preisner; and is shot with gorgeous luminosity by The Piano’s Stuart Dryburgh. And by the time it reaches its cloying close, it’s difficult to take its overwrought sincerity at all seriously.
Country opens on a title card explaining the literal translation of “Bai Doi,” what the children of Vietnamese mothers and U.S. fathers are called: “less than dust.” Binh embodies that derision. With his shoulders forever slumped forward and his eyes always cast down, Binh is an outcast even in the poor village where he lives. Despised as not “real Vietnamese,” he decides to find his mother and eventually his father, sparking an epic adventure that takes the good-hearted young man to Saigon, a Malaysian refugee camp, and on an ill-fated voyage to America.
His mother welcomes him with loving arms; she works as a servant for a wealthy family, and secures a job for Binh there as well. The Vietnam portion of the movie unfolds in hypnotic mosaic, village scenes becoming city scenes corresponding to Binh’s travels, echoing the serene rhythm of daily life captured in 1999’s underrated Three Seasons. Moland conveys Binh’s total lack of self-esteem in subtle establishing shots, which are always of people’s shoe-clad feet. (He later tells people he wants to be a shoe salesmen in America.) But a misunderstanding-turned-household accident puts Binh on the run, and he takes his adolescent young half-brother Tam (Dang Quoc Thinh Tran) on the lam with him.
A choppy, overstuffed boat ride lands Binh and Tam in a Malaysian refugee camp, where Country starts its slow roll into the preposterous: Familiar actors phone in their usual types, sabotaging the movie’s realistic patina. The proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, Chinese refugee Ling (Ling Bai as her usual sexy exotica), takes a shine to the pair, and helps fund their way onto a smuggling vessel helmed by Captain Oh (Tim Roth with a villainous beard) and Snakeyes, played by New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison with same amount of casual brutality he gave Once Were Warriors’ Jake the Muss. And once you encounter this pair, you can guess what’s going to happen: Snakeyes reveals himself the businessman money-motivated into trading in people, Roth the coldly sinister real-life monster.
Once enslaved in New York to work off their transport, Ling returns to her trade and Binh delivers Chinese food. (In a bit of daft humor, almost all non-Vietnamese misunderstand Binh’s name as “Ben.”) By this point you’re surprised the guy made it this far: Everybody feels sorry for the beaten puppy, sure, but it’s fairly ludicrous that people in the human-freight trade would be so willing to help a guy out so often. He eventually rustles up the nerve to hitchhike to Texas, tracking down the Houston address that appears on his birth certificate, a last-hope chase that eventually leads him to a ranch in Sweetwater where his father works as a handyman. And who does he find?
Nick Nolte—and a blind Nick Nolte at that. Spoiling this surprisingly touching and comically absurd meeting would be a sin, but it is the key that determines your enjoyment of the previous 120 minutes. The Beautiful Country is an engaging bit of the touchy-feely, but its success hinges entirely on your appreciation of the emotional range of Nick Nolte. Just saying.