One simple but essential factor that makes Vietnamese films so stunning is the sheer beauty of the country. Add now to the unforgettable landscapes in Tony Bui’s Three Seasons and Tran Anh Hung’s Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo, and The Vertical Ray of the Sun, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s The Beautiful Country.
Once again, there is a chance to see steeply rising tropical mountains looming over serene lakes, the claustrophobic alleys of Saigon, the persistent French colonial elegance of Hanoi, and – above all – a striking, vital people. The problem with The Beautiful Country is that it utilizes these great assets in a poorly-written melodrama which at times borders on the tedious.
The film begins with a striking but unconvincing confrontation between a rich woman and her poor servant in Saigon, the servant’s son being one of Vietnam’s despised "half-breeds," with a GI father, children called "bin duh" or "lower than dirt." He is Binh (Damien Nguyen), a quiet, humble man in his 20’s, well used to abuse, but now forced to flee Vietnam.
It’s 1990 and Binh joins the ranks of a new generation of boat people, on a desperate quest to reach "America, the beautiful country." After an overlong dramatic-but-cartoonish sea voyage and a strange almost-affair with a Chinese prostitute (Bai Ling) Binh arrives in New York, where Moland provides a superficial glimpse of the life of illegal immigrants.
It is at this point that The Beautiful Country suddenly hits a high point, a moment of terrible, heart-breaking realization by Binh; unfortunately the rest of the film doesn’t operate on that level. It ends in Texas with the brief, but pivotal appearance of an unrecognizable Nick Nolte.
Green Dragon, an earlier attempt by Tim Bui (Tony’s brother) to tell of Vietnamese migration to the United States, was largely unsuccessful. A single memorable scene – by Debbie Reynolds, of all people – in Oliver Stone’s 1993 Heaven and Earth, also deals with the subject, but this important story still awaits a film to do it justice.
– Janos Gereben