Saigon...shit. Judge Joel Pearce is still only in Saigon.
Bui Doi: "less than dust," a phrase used to describe Vietnamese children with American fathers.
Equal parts epic and mundane, The Beautiful Country is a welcome take on both social injustice and the immigrant experience. Bolstered by fine performances and a classic structure, it comes highly recommended to those who yearn for a brand of drama not often seen anymore.
Facts of the Case
There is a hidden class in Vietnam made up of the orphaned children of American soldiers who were abandoned after the war. They are referred to as "bui doi" (less than dust), a phrase that sums up how hated they are among the Vietnamese people.
It is 1990, and Binh (Damien Nguyen) is one a bui doi. He has been taken in by a family, who give him a roof over his head and scraps from their table in exchange for long days of hard labor. He accepts this situation, until he is cast out after they announce that he is no longer wanted. This kicks off a journey that sends Binh across the world. First he searches for his mother in Saigon. There he learns that his parents were married before his father suddenly headed back to America. Binh runs from Saigon in an attempt to escape to America and find his father, but it will be a long and difficult journey…
The pleasure of The Beautiful Country is in its epic simplicity. The story is told in acts, each one representing a different destination in Binh's journey. At each of these destinations, he meets a range of people, each one responding to him in a different way. It is a coming of age story: Though he is not young, the story offers him a chance to become self-sufficient. He finds a voice and a place where he belongs. Much of the story is highly symbolic; it is a universal tale about outcasts trying to find a home.
As a bui doi, Binh is the prototypical outsider: He looks American to the Vietnamese, and Vietnamese to the Americans. He is a person with no place, no people, no value. His tragic identity as an outcast is presented in a fascinating and realistic manner. As is often the case with the abused, Binh is both kind and honest, grateful and intelligent. He has suffered for so long that he truly believes he is inferior, even though he still wishes in his heart that he will be accepted by his father. At each destination, his determination and humanity carry him through his hardships, not any heroic nature. Damien Nguyen was a great choice to fill the role of Binh. He delivers a performance with no sour notes whatsoever.
The rest of the international (and more famous) cast also offer up good performances. The actors never grandstand or try to upstage Nguyen. Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs) is surprisingly subtle as Captain Oh. Bai Ling (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) is both strong and vulnerable as a woman who has long since given up on her own dignity. These compromised characters draw the curtain back, revealing the the world of the film. It is a world in which each character fights selfishly to get what he or she wants. Whether each is good or evil depends upon circumstances more than anything else. Binh is no exception, though his own circumstances have made him sensitive to others' pain.
I have only minor complaints about the unremarkable technical quality of the DVD as well. The video transfer is sharp and clear, though it does have some grain in the dark sequences. The Dolby 5.1 audio is fine, though plain. It rarely makes use of the surrounds or LFE channel. There are few extras, but I am quite impressed by what has been included. There is a commentary track with director Peter Moland, which is a thoughtful track covering the goals and intentions of The Beautiful Country. As well, there is an interview with screenwriter Sabina Murray, which explores how the film came to be made in the first place. It's good to see studios distributing this kind of project, which contrasts well with the more typical Hollywood fare.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are a few things that prevent The Beautiful Country from being a classic. It runs a little bit too long, and it's also a bit too blunt at times. By trying to make this a story about the refugee experience, the focus is sometimes stolen a bit too much from its main characters. Few people experience disconnectedness at the level of the bui doi, and I think the whole film should have focused on that experience.
Although it isn't potent enough to create the kind of impact it should, The Beautiful Country is a fine film that tells a human story of pain and the search for a place to call home. It is well worth at least a rental.
Hopefully Binh will find a home on many DVD collection shelves. Not guilty.
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