This somber tale is about a young man named Binh (Damien Nguyen) and his search for his American GI father, a painful odyssey that takes him from his small Vietnamese village to a ranch near Austin, Texas. Tall and gangly and with Anglo-Asian features, Binh is an outcast in his village, called pig face, and forced to eat alone outside on the porch so his relatives dont have to look at him. Binh is quiet and soft-spoken and seems resigned to his fate, but secretly he is determined to find his father and, hopefully, his identity.
The first leg of his journey takes him to Saigon, where his mother, who left him with relatives years ago, is raising his younger brother Tam and working as a maid in a sumptuous household. Though the film is set in the communist Vietnam of 1990, the social injustice thats depicted is age-old and not limited to any economic or political system; its the haves versus the have-nots. Binhs mother has to endure the imperious demands of the households mistress and the persistent gropings of the womans layabout son. After their tearful reunion, she gets Binh a job in the house, which leads to a predictable disaster that ends with Binh and Tam fleeing the country.
From here things just get worse as the brothers land in a brutal Malaysian refugee camp, where they befriend a young Chinese prostitute named Ling (Bai Ling). Ling has a means of escape, and the trio find themselves on a rogue steamer crammed with illicit human cargo, steered by an enigmatic captain (Tim Roth) whos a dangerous sociopath. But the boat is going to America, and Binh is determined to survive.
Binh eventually does find his father, played by Nick Nolte, and the climax plays out in a way that is wholly original, remarkably restrained and in sharp contrast to the stormy melodrama of the story that precedes it. It also redeems a narrative that has problematic pacing (its a long two hours) and tone, and a central character whos often just too withdrawn. The Beautiful Country puts the viewer through the wringer, but the simple beauty of the epilogue makes the journey seem worthwhile.
In English and Vietnamese with English subtitles. Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.