Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Aug 12, 2005 11:59 am 
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A ruin of good intentions

Hans Petter Moland's The Beautiful Country is another in a long line of coming-to-America films. This one is about a Vietnamese man who journeys arduously from Saigon to Texas to find his American father. It's a classic theme, and an important one: but fine themes and noble intentions do not a great movie make. Poorly written and edited, draggy, incomprehensible and lacking in verisimilitude (or flat-out unbelievable) in parts and disjointed, an ordeal to watch, the film -- which has some pretty images and some good acting -- is briefly but memorably saved in the last quarter hour when Nick Nolte comes in as the father and he and his son Binh (Damien Nguyen) play off each other in Texas ranch country like a couple of laconic Cormac McCarthy cowboys. Nolte certainly hasn't lost his touch; and the Vietnamese character has had a tight-lipped, stoical quality all along which now suddenly fits and harmonizes in a few quietly effective scenes. Whether it's worth it to sit through all the rest to get to this short sequence is another question.

Bihh, the central character, is a Vietnamese half-breed man treated brutally in his own country because, as someone fathered by an American soldier, he's regarded as "less than dust." This is true, we find, even though Binh's father married his mother -- and left her behind for reasons not his own. Each major narrative shift is punched forward by an invented-looking event. When the people Binh lives with in the Vietnamese countryside as the film begins gain another family member he's immediately ejected from the household.

Binh goes to Saigon where miraculously, though his mother is a nobody working as a house servant, he quickly finds her. Life for Binh is full of Dickensian grimness with sudden strokes of good or bad fortune, and he has a perpetual hangdog look and a creeping walk with shoulders slumped and face down. There's something wrong with his lip. Everyone keeps saying he's ugly, but he's just ordinary: they either perceive him as ugly because of his Caucasian look, or because it's part of the plot. Binh immediately becomes a punching bag as a servant at the house where his mom works, and an accident makes him look guilty of a crime so serious he must immediately flee. Weepingly, his mother sends him off with her young son by somebody else, to make his way -- to America, with a small bundle of cash she's been saving.

The hero ends up with his little half-brother in a Malaysian refugee camp, where he meets a resilient Chinese prostitute and would-be singer, Ling (Ling Bai), and they bond. At her urging he escapes and miraculously they are taken onto a rust-coated vessel full of desperate human cargo, a virtual slave ship, headed for America. The captain is Tim Roth, in a typically interesting, but this time wasted, performance. Things are so mismanaged on the boat that the hapless passengers die off like flies, despite a manager's pledge to lose no one since he'll be paid by the head on arrival. Life on board is a seemingly futile struggle to survive. Amid the craziness and death a fantastic game is played wherein the desperate travelers compete by calling out the names of Americana such as foods, places, or movie stars.

Binh remains an implausible mixture of hangdog manner and iron will. For no clear reason Captain Oh (Roth) takes a shine to him -- but tells him he'll be out of place wherever he goes. "I know," Binh says.

Finally New York comes into view -- but how the passengers are unloaded is one of many explanations the screenplay avoids providing. Binh works in a Chinatown restaurant in the indentured situation he was promised when he talked his way onto the boat -- till somebody remarks that if he has an American father, he's entitled to US citizenship. This revelation causes him to strike out cross country to seek his dad, who's supposed to be in Houston.

Since Binh didn't even know where his mother was in Saigon, how he finds his father working as a ranch hand in an obscure corner of cowboy country is one more far-fetched plot twist. But we can only be grateful, if we've made it through this far, because Nolte comes in and for a quarter of an hour, creates another, better movie.

Why this was directed by a Norwegian is hard to guess; one can only say that the producers, who included Terrence Malick (also credited with the film's concept) took a chance and played a long shot. Obviously when the actors are speaking Vietnamese, they were on their own. Maybe that's why after a while everybody starts speaking broken (but in Nguyen's case, surprisingly unaccented) English. There can be no other good reason.

There is no question about the fact that the writing and editing of The Beautiful Country are irredeemably flawed. Apart from stilted speeches, the script is marred by more fits and starts and inexplicable or incredible outcomes than can be listed here. This movie can be considered "timely" and socially significant and from that the allowances begin. It has -- or attempts -- an epic quality -- and visually it has fine moments. But the contrived screenplay and stilted dialogue make it painful viewing and an artistic disaster.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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