Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Beautiful Country

(Norway/USA, 2004)

In Vietnamese the children of American G.I.s and Vietnamese women are called bui doi, which translates as “less than dust.” How horrible. I can certainly understand the bitterness of the people over all the horrors we visited on them, but it’s so unfair to take it out on the children. Binh is bui doi, too tall when he visits the marketplace, with hair that has a little bit of a curl and a hint of redness. He’s grown up abused physically by kids his age, and treated literally like a dog by his foster family. About all he knows how to do is keep his head down, try to be as small and silent as a mouse.
He sets out for Saigon, and finds his real mother. But they get in trouble with the rich communist family they work for. (I guess after 100 years of miserable failure in every country where it’s been tried, the phrase “rich communist” no longer seems a contradiction in terms.) His mother gives him her life savings and he has to flee, with his 4-year-old brother. They get on a crappy boat whose motor conks out almost at once, end up wading ashore in Malaysia, and are put in a refugee camp.
The camp is no bed of roses, but is reasonably humane for a poor country like Malaysia. But there seems little prospect of getting out. Binh falls in love with Ling, a pretty Chinese girl who works as a prostitute with the guards. They escape, and fall right into Hell.
We heard of the “boat people,” and saw footage of overcrowded tubs with thirsty and hungry people on the news, but it really seldom came home to me just how bad the conditions were. Binh and Ling and the little brother board a rustbucket freighter and the first thing they learn is that the $2000 fee they were told about has now jumped to $8000. No problem, just sign here and work it off when you get to New York. The captain, Tim Roth, is eccentric, to say the least, and he’s the best of the human garbage that prey on these people.
Well, I won’t dwell on that. You have to see these people dying like flies in the hold of the ship to believe it … and of course I do. That’s how it was, and still is for people trying to get here.
Long story short, they arrive in the Big Apple and are put to work, but Binh’s objective all along was to find his father in Houston, Texas. It won’t surprise you to learn that he does find him (Nick Nolte, in a wonderful performance) … but what happens next was surprising. I figured it can go only two ways, right? Papa embraces his long-lost son, or Papa says get out of my house, you lousy gook. But that’s not what happens, and what does is much more satisfying than either of those alternatives. Some may find this movie a bit slow, but I didn’t. I thought it was very good. I should also note the great performances by Damien Nguyen and Bai Ling as Binh and Ling.