Social outcast Binh (Damien Nguyen) is known in his homeland as “bin duh” (translated as “lower than dirt”), a spiteful designation earned by his half-breed status as the child of a Vietnamese mother and an American G.I. father. Binh’s pariah position marks him as part of the continuing legacy of the Vietnam War, and Hans Petter Moland’s The Beautiful Country casts Binh’s perilous journey to find his father in the U.S. as a defiant, courageous act of self-actualization. Though more narratively conventional than the work of Terrence Malick, Moland’s film nonetheless exhibits the same entrancing serenity and attention to environment as found in Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line (Malick, as it turns out, is one of the film’s producers). And his supple, understatedly sentimental depiction of Binh’s quest (set in 1990) is given equal measures of grit and grace by Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography, which oscillates between gorgeous establishing shots of Binh’s various stops (including an overcrowded migrant boat, a Malaysian refugee camp, and an underground Chinatown, NYC dormitory for illegal workers) and close-ups of the wounded man’s countenance.
Binh dreams of becoming a shoe salesman upon reaching U.S. shores, an unsurprising aspiration considering that a lifetime of physical and verbal abuse (nearly everyone he meets feels obligated to call him “ugly”) has led the quiet, timid young man to maintain a perpetually deferential, downturned face aimed at others’ feet. Newcomer Nguyen breathes life into Binh with only a smattering of dialogue (in Vietnamese and broken English), instead conveying both agony and resolve with his large, emoting eyes. Furthermore, his tender, tremulous rapport with a Chinese prostitute named Ling (Bai Ling) whom he befriends in a Malaysian prison is a beacon of poignant hope amid the all-encompassing atmosphere of misery.
Moland’s humanistic story about xenophobia, man’s persevering spirit, and life’s bitter ironies—such as when Binh learns, after a wrenching sea voyage to Manhattan that cost his young brother his life, that the U.S. government is flying Vietnamese-American kids to the States for free—only stumbles during its final act, when the director unwisely complements Binh’s arrival in Austin, Texas with disruptively cheesy ‘80s-style music. Yet with a wrenching, inconclusive finale, the filmmaker refuses to succumb to the desire for pat reconciliation and resolution, thereby shrewdly acknowledging the unfair, ongoing, and often-irreparable wounds caused by conflicts both national and personal.