The bui-doi, as you know from “Miss Saigon,” are the Vietnamese children with American fathers, specifically the offspring of soldiers who were stationed there during the Vietnam War. “The Beautiful Country” seeks to examine, through the eyes of one bui-doi, what became of Vietnam after America left.
Binh (Damien Nguyen) is about 18 in 1990, when the film is set, and his bui-doi status makes him a second-class citizen even in his homeland. Unhappy in his small village, he embarks on something of an epic journey, a literal manifestation of what is ultimately everyone’s goal. He wants to find out who he is.
In Saigon, he finds his mother, Mai (Thi Kim Xuan Chau), who had to leave him years ago and who now works as a maid for a rich Vietnamese family where the matron belittles her and the eldest son openly gropes her. Mai has produced another son in the intervening years, a spunky little tyke named Tam (Dang Quoc Thinh Tran). After an accident that makes Saigon unsafe for them, Binh and Tam flee the city and wind up in a Malaysian refugee camp, home to hundreds of other displaced Asians who find that no country wants them. Binh’s goal is to reach America and then to find his father, whose name and last known address he has.
Among the refugees is Ling (Ling Bai), a pretty Chinese woman who has learned the one sure-fire way to make enough money to buy passage on a ship to America: prostitution. By this method (i.e., Ling’s prostitution, not theirs) is Binh and Tam’s journey financed, but there is still more peril to be found at the hands of seagoing mercenaries played by Tim Roth and Temuera Morrison.
Binh’s journey to find his father (eventually played by Nick Nolte, who gets top billing despite not appearing until the film’s final 25 minutes) is ably conducted by director Hans Petter Moland, but it’s only occasionally emotionally effective. The structure of the film (written by Sabina Murray) has characters appearing in Binh’s life only to disappear again once that stage of the journey is over. This leaves us with only Binh himself to affix our devotion to, and while Damien Nguyen is more than capable as an actor, the character is a little dull, perhaps a bit one-sided. He’s certainly too single-minded to be a captivating movie protagonist, with nary a shade of gray anywhere in his personality.
B- (2 hrs., 5 min.; )