“The Beautiful Country” is profoundly sad.
The length and slow pace of the movie give us the emotional time we need
to sink into what it is telling us visually.
There isn’t much dialogue here, but the filming of Vietnam and the
daily lives of the Vietnamese is vivid and memorable.
We are pulled in, irreversibly, to what it must feel like to be without
hope and without power. By power I
mean only the small, fragile bubble of respect that encapsulates most of us in
America. It is born of respect for
the individual and with the exceptions of crimes and accidents, it isn’t often
punctured. That’s not the case in
Vietnam of this film.
Binh ( (Damien Nguyen) is at the very bottom of the social order in his
village. His mother married an
American soldier during the war and gave birth to Binh forever marking the boy
as “Bui Doi” (less than dust), the
scabrous term used for Vietnamese children with American fathers (roughly 15,000
of them). Called “Pig Face” by
the bullies that surround him, Binh decides to find his father who he believes
lives in Houston. He begins his
journey in Saigon where his mother works as a maid for a grotesquely mean woman
of wealth who abuses Binh’s mother with the power of class.
She bids Binh good luck on his journey with, “Keep a good heart.”
That will be a tough assignment.
As Binh moves from a Malaysian prison to a slave ship captained by a
rotter (Tim Roth), he makes his way slowly to America as he cares for his
half-brother. Watching him scrape
for a few kernels of rice at a time for young Tam is heartbreaking.
But so is the entire sight of the cruel poverty of people who have
nothing. When you add the fact that
this shipload of passengers is being bought and sold into slavery, the film
becomes thoroughly unnerving. But
this happened. There was a Vietnam
War; American soldiers did father Vietnamese children (15,000 of them) who are
discarded by their culture. Vietnamese
have made their way to America under wicked conditions.
There are slave shops.
After arriving in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Binh slowly works off his debt to the ship’s captain and then sets off across America to Texas. As the young man gains a sense of himself, he stands taller, holds his head higher, and stays true to his essential character as a good and decent man. What must it be like to be a good and decent young man only to be treated like dirt for your whole young life? Director Hans Petter Moland has done his work well, because at this point both Binh’s character and his country have sunk through our skins. All this beauty, and all this cruelty. Do try to see this movie when you aren’t preoccupied. It offers each of us, at any age, a chance to take another small step in growing up.
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